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What To Know Ahead Of President Biden's Meeting With Putin

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

So as we mentioned, President Biden heads to Geneva later this week to sit down with Vladimir Putin. Hanging over that summit is that 2018 Helsinki meeting between former President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. And as a reminder, that is when Trump stood next to Putin, and took Putin's side, not U.S. intelligence agencies, on the key question of whether Russia had interfered in the 2016 presidential election.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: People came to me. Dan Coats came to me and some others. They said they think it's Russia. I have President Putin. He just said it's not Russia. I will say this - I don't see any reason why it would be.

DETROW: That episode and many, many other things in recent years have added layers of tension to the U.S.-Russia relationship. Yuval Weber joins us now to talk about where things stand. He teaches at Texas A&M's Bush School of Government and Public Service in Washington, D.C., and as a global fellow at the Wilson Center. Good morning.

YUVAL WEBER: Thanks for having me.

DETROW: So a lot of expectations for the summit. There is the shadow of what happened at Helsinki but also a lot of Russian provocation recently, including a spate of recent hacks and cyberattacks Given all this, do you see any outcome after this meeting other than Biden and Putin emerging - separately, as we've learned - and rehashing the two countries' major differences?

WEBER: Well, that would actually be pretty great, all things considered.

DETROW: Why's that?

WEBER: The relationship between Russia and the United States seems to set a new record for how bad it can get seemingly every single week and month. So if they can find that they're on the same page about where they are, that would be a tremendous success.

DETROW: Just agreeing to disagree would be progress at this point. I think that says a lot.

WEBER: Yeah, because in terms of what President Biden and his team have said, in terms of how they want to see the relationship with Russia, they want it to be stable and predictable. To Putin's ears, that is code for Russia being ignored. So if the United States can take Russia's point of view seriously on any of the issues that divide them - and probably what they'll be speaking about most is nuclear arms stability and the norms about cyber intrusion and cyber intrusion including not just the ransomware hacks of Colonial Pipeline or SolarWinds but also the interference into elections and voting processes and things of that nature. If they can at least arrest that in terms of where it is, then that would be good. But the reason that Biden is meeting with Putin is because these things are occurring. If Russia was, you know, happy, friendly, and helpful, then Biden really wouldn't care. He'd be moving on to China, domestic issues and whatever else is more important to him.

DETROW: The president heads into this meeting after seeing allies in person this weekend at the G-7, tomorrow at NATO. After the last few years, do you see Western European leaders and the United States as on the same page when it comes to the threat of Russia, economic relationships with Russia, how to deal with Putin specifically?

WEBER: So sure. So I think the Europeans basically are ready for consistent U.S. leadership. One of the first things that President Trump did is he got out of the Paris climate accords. And, you know, he was out of the Iran nuclear deal. And those are things that President Biden went right back into. So that's what the Europeans are looking for when it comes to things such as climate change, you know, vaccines and sort of pandemic responses. And then Russia and China - they're all pretty much all in the same page of what it is that they want, but they're not quite sure, is America able to deliver from administration to administration on things that are really change - the way that the world works and, really, the foreign policy, geopolitical trajectories of all of these countries.

DETROW: These tensions with Russia and President Putin in specific have really hung over the Biden administration. But the issue that's preoccupied the president way more is countering China economically. That's something that was also a big theme at the G-7. I'm curious how you see Russia fitting into this growing economic confrontation between the U.S. and China.

WEBER: Where Putin is and where Russia is is that they would prefer to be taken far more seriously by the United States and to be used in terms of what international relations theorists or political scientists call a wedging strategy. If they could get the things that they want, which is sanctions relaxation and a really favorable resolution to Ukraine, which is Ukraine not getting into NATO, then they, basically, would offer the ability to help balance China. Of course, the problem with that is, one, that sort of violates a lot of values and morals that the United States and, you know, its allies actually have.

But the other part of it - and this is sort of the - Putin's real paradox - is that if he were to do that, then he might face a lot of domestic pressures at home for selling out a lot of these policies that he's been holding very seriously for the last number of years. And more to the point, what would then prevent Putin from basically getting all these goodies from the U.S. in order to help against China but then, you know, turning back around and then saying to China, well, what can you offer me to come back to your side?

DETROW: So when Biden and Putin leave this summit, what is the one thing that you're going to be looking for more than anything else in terms of body language or statements or news items coming out of this summit? What's the one thng that your mind's going to jump to right away?

WEBER: What I will look for in terms of Biden is whether he talked about human rights, democracy, Alexei Navalny because if he talks about those issues, then that means that none of the other things that they talked about went well because if he's willing to burn Putin in public on the repression that's happening inside of Russia, then it means that they didn't come to any sort of deal or get on the path towards a deal about these other bigger issues such as China, nuclear weapons and the like.

DETROW: Yuval Weber teaches at Texas A&M's Bush School of Government and Public Service in Washington, D.C. He's also a global fellow at the Wilson Center. Thanks for joining us.

WEBER: Thanks for having me. Big pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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