What to expect from a possible June summit between Putin and Biden

By ISABELLE KHURSHUDYAN | The Washington Post | Published: May 5, 2021

MOSCOW — Amid sinking relations, President Joe Biden and Russia's Vladimir Putin appear to be seeking a June summit while Biden is Europe for talks with allies.

Biden — who said Tuesday it was his "hope and expectation" to meet Putin next month — is scheduled to attend a Group of Seven summit in Britain on June 11-13 and then travel to Brussels for E.U. talks and a NATO summit June 14.

Russia's Kommersant newspaper, citing anonymous sources, reported that the White House has proposed June 15 or 16 to meet Putin in a third country. Austria and Finland have offered to host. A 2018 summit between Putin and then-President Donald Trump was in Helsinki.

Putin aide Yury Ushakov told state media that the summit could happen in June, but no firm decision has been made. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said Biden's proposal for a summit was received "positively" by the Kremlin.

What is likely on the agenda will be where they can find some accord

Though the U.S.-Russia relationship has become increasingly adversarial, there are some areas for potential cooperation: nuclear arms control, the Iran nuclear deal, North Korea, and stability in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of U.S. and coalition forces. Putin took part in a virtual climate summit hosted by Biden last month,

Reviving the Open Skies Treaty, an international pact allowing observation flights over military facilities, could come up. Both countries have pulled out of it, but appear willing to seek a restart.

Where Putin digs in

Some issues are non-starters for Putin. They include eastern Ukraine, where Moscow-backed separatists and Western-supported Ukraine forces have battled for more than seven years. Russia recently bolstered its military presence near Ukraine in an apparent message to Washington that Moscow stands by the breakaway Ukraine region. But, at the same time, Russia also claims it is not directly involved in the conflict. Putin often calls it an "internal Ukraine crisis."

Putin is also unlikely to budge on the subject of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny. As Navalny's health significantly deteriorated during a hunger strike last month, the White House warned that there would be "consequences" for the Kremlin if Navalny died in prison. Putin refuses to even refer to Navalny by name in public.

Heather Conley, head of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Kremlin's goal for the summit will be "to remind Washington that its relationship with Beijing grows stronger by the day unless a new condominium with the U.S. can be found."

Why the tense backdrop?

At nearly every turn, there is a point of friction between Moscow and Washington.

In March, Biden answered in the affirmative when asked during an interview if he thought Putin was a "killer." A month later, the United States slapped a new round of economic sanctions on Russia for its cyberespionage campaigns.

Both ambassadors are back in their respective countries. Russia recalled its envoy to the United States in April "for consultations," and Moscow then recommended the U.S. ambassador, John Sullivan, return to Washington. He left Moscow April 20.

Meanwhile, Putin has made it clear he is sticking with Belarus's authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, after widespread protests last year following elections that opposition groups called rigged to ensure Lukashenko stayed in power.

Russia's main security agency said last month it arrested two Belarusians who were purportedly working on a plot to overthrow the Belarus government and kill Lukashenko. Lukashenko told Belarusian television there was foreign involvement in the alleged plot, "most likely the FBI, the CIA."

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin raised the alleged coup in his April call with Biden.

The United States and Russia are also on opposite sides of the decade-long civil war in Syria: Moscow supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government while Washington has supported local Kurdish fighters and others. There have been occasional skirmishes between the U.S. and Russian forces that patrol northeast Syria.

For Biden, the shadow of Helsinki

When Trump stood beside Putin at a news conference after the 2018 Helsinki summit, he refused to blame Putin for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, sparking fierce criticism at home.

Biden will likely have that in the back of his mind ahead of his summit with Putin, said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

"It's just like the 'killer' remark - he will have to show at that news conference that he is no Donald Trump," Trenin said. "He will not agree with Putin more than a minimum that can be explained to the American people as a victory for U.S. diplomacy with Russia."

"It's not going to be a very nice event," he added.

Putin will similarly look to project Russia as unbending.

In his April state-of-the-nation speech to Russia's parliament, Putin issued a warning that appeared meant for Washington and the West, that anyone who threatens Russia "will regret it like they've never regretted anything before."