Biden’s Summit With Putin Follows A Harrowing History Of U.S. Meetings With Russia
President Biden’s first meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin could be the most contentious between the leaders of the two countries since the Cold War ended three decades ago.
Biden has an agenda of grievances, complaints and protests pertaining to Russian activities abroad and Putin’s suppression of dissidents at home. Putin has shown no interest in altering his behavior and has his own lists of accusations about U.S. actions in Europe and the Middle East.
So this meeting June 16 in Geneva, unlike Putin’s meeting with President Trump in 2018, will recall the long and often tumultuous series of summits between the leaders of the two powers dating back to World War II and their decades of jockeying for dominance on the global stage.
Creating the postwar world
The postwar world was born, in a real sense, in the first summit meetings between U.S. and Soviet leaders while World War II raged. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin met twice with President Franklin Roosevelt and then with his successor, Harry Truman, each time with the fate of entire continents very much in the balance.
Roosevelt met Stalin in 1943 and early in 1945, both times in the presence of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In the 1943 meeting, held in Tehran, Stalin promised not to make a separate peace with Germany, and the Anglo-American leaders promised to open a second front in France within a year.
In February 1945, with Germany nearing defeat, the Big 3 met at Yalta, the Soviet Black Sea resort. Here, Stalin promised to enter the war against Japan after Germany had surrendered, but did not make any commitments regarding the European territory his Red Army was taking from the retreating Nazis. At that point, Roosevelt had only weeks to live.
In July 1945, after Germany had surrendered and Roosevelt had died, Truman took his place at a meeting of the Big 3 at Potsdam, near a bombed-out Berlin. He would learn in the course of the conference that the first nuclear explosion had been successful at a test site in New Mexico. Historians have long debated whether Truman, who had been president less than four months, should have used this knowledge to put more pressure on Stalin. As it happened, the Soviets promised to join and respect the United Nations, and to hold free elections in the countries they occupied — a promise they would not keep.
The Cold War and the Eisenhower era
For conservatives in the Western democracies, the Yalta and Potsdam meetings came to be viewed as a triumph for Stalin and communism in general. They placed much of the blame on the American presidents who had negotiated with Stalin, and on the State Department leaders and bureaucracies installed during the 20 years those presidents were in office.
Much of this feeling reached a crescendo with the Korean War (1950-1953), contributing to the landslide election of Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, with California’s Richard M. Nixon as his vice president.
A year later, Stalin died suddenly, and a power struggle produced a new central figure in Nikita Khrushchev. While far less imposing than Stalin, whose tyranny he denounced, Khrushchev was committed to communism and its competition with the West.
Eisenhower was secure enough in his presidency to sit down with Khrushchev in 1955 at the first “Geneva Summit.” Joining them were the leaders of Britain and France. There was also talk of trade and the beginnings of discussions about nuclear arms controls and reductions.
In 1959, Khrushchev made the first visit to the U.S. by a Soviet leader, a public relations tour de force that included a visit to a farm in Iowa and a summit with Eisenhower at Camp David. Plans were made for a major summit the following year in Paris that was to include the British and French. But when that meeting convened in May 1960, news came of a U.S. spy plane being shot down over Russia (the U-2 incident), and Khrushchev abruptly left the summit.
Kennedy and Johnson: Berlin, Cuba, Vietnam
In 1961, Khrushchev sat down in Vienna with Eisenhower’s freshly elected successor, a 44-year-old Democrat named John F. Kennedy.
Once again the Soviet leader seemed to be holding the high cards. Kennedy was smarting from the failure of an attempted invasion of Cuba to overthrow the Moscow-aligned communist regime of Fidel Castro.
Khrushchev considered this a sign of weakness. When Kennedy tried to get Khrushchev to acknowledge that nuclear war was unthinkable, Khrushchev seemed unmoved. That summer, the Russian-occupied zone in divided Berlin was walled off, in effect imprisoning its population.
But the focus of confrontation soon moved to Cuba. In 1962, U.S. aerial reconnaissance spotted missile launchers being installed in Cuba, with Russian missiles approaching the island by sea. Kennedy threw up a naval blockade and made it clear he would be willing to go to war.
Khrushchev recalculated his bet, recalled the missiles and withdrew the launchers. A test-ban treaty was subsequently negotiated and signed by both countries, although without another summit meeting.
The two men never met again. In November 1963, Kennedy was assassinated. There would not be another formal summit for six years.
Perhaps the least likely of all summit locations was the campus of Glassboro State College (now Rowan University) in New Jersey where President Lyndon Johnson met with the Soviet premier in June 1967. Khrushchev was gone, replaced by Alexei Kosygin, a far less mediagenic figure. Kosygin was in the U.S. for a U.N. meeting, and the New Jersey site was a midpoint between Washington and New York.
Johnson had become president on Kennedy’s death but won a term of his own in a landslide in 1964, in part by demonstrating his anti-communist mettle and vowing to stop communist expansion in Southeast Asia. Kosygin for his part was more concerned with internal Soviet politics and needed the world stage to enhance his own standing at home as well as Soviet prestige.
Johnson wanted to continue the nuclear-test ban, but his main agenda was getting the Soviets to help him conclude the war in Vietnam.
The talks on Vietnam were inconclusive, but Johnson felt he had a freer hand because of the meeting and intensified the bombing of North Vietnam thereafter. The issue would continue to divide the U.S. and dominate the later phase of his presidency, eventually persuading him not to seek another term in 1968. Richard Nixon would win the election that year promising a “secret plan” to win in Vietnam.
Nixon introduces détente
When Nixon came to office as president in 1969, the American public was wearier of Vietnam than ever. He would spend much of his first time in office renegotiating the U.S. relationships with Moscow and Beijing, constructing a new balance for the global powers — with an exit ramp from Vietnam part of the bargain. The pivotal moments in his strategy came in 1972, his reelection year, when he paid visits to both Moscow and Beijing — the first sitting American president to be received in the Kremlin or in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
Although perhaps overshadowed by his visit with Mao Zedong in China, Nixon’s visit with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was the more efficacious of the two. It increased pressure on the Chinese to do business with the American leader. And it gave Nixon the sense he had been seeking that he could continue to pave his road out of Vietnam with ruthless bombing campaigns and secret incursions into neighboring countries such as Cambodia.
Nixon saw his meetings with Brezhnev as a bookend for the Cold War era that began in Potsdam a quarter of a century earlier. The two men signed the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty limiting nuclear weapons and anti-ballistic missiles. And Nixon believed he had inaugurated a new era in which Russia might evolve away from autocracy when confronted by a united front of Western powers and uncertainty regarding the full support of China.
Ford and Carter: Brief turns at the wheel
Gerald Ford had been Nixon’s vice president less than a year when the Watergate scandal forced Nixon to resign. Ford, who would fill out the remaining two years of Nixon’s term, had two meetings with the Soviet leader Brezhnev, who remained committed to the ban on nuclear testing and the effort to prevent new countries from entering the “nuclear club.” Both goals were reaffirmed at summit meetings between Ford and Brezhnev at Vladivostok in 1974 and in Helsinki in 1975.
When Ford lost to Democrat Jimmy Carter in the election of 1976, the Russians saw an opportunity with the new president, who had no foreign policy experience. In 1979, Carter and Brezhnev would sign the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II) that had been in negotiation for years. But at the end of that year, Soviet tanks and helicopters invaded Afghanistan and installed a friendly puppet government in Kabul. Carter would respond by canceling U.S. involvement in the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. That gesture would exact a political price at home for Carter, who was already battling high inflation and unemployment and a foreign policy crisis in Iran.
Reagan and Bush: The Gorbachev breakthrough
If Carter was confronted with some of the worst Soviet behavior in the Cold War period, his successor was able to enjoy and exploit some of the best. Ronald Reagan had campaigned against the Soviet Union throughout his political career, calling it the “Evil Empire.”
At the same time, Reagan was deeply disturbed about the specter of nuclear war and wanted to end that threat. He wrote a personal letter to Brezhnev shortly before the latter’s death that struck some of Reagan’s own inner circle as naïve on this subject.
But early in his second term, Reagan discovered a new kind of leader in the Kremlin, General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, who not only shared his ambitions regarding nuclear weapons but was ready to commence the dismantling of the Soviet state itself.
Reagan and Gorbachev held their first summit in Geneva in November of 1985. No agreements were reached, but the climate had clearly changed. The two men met again in Reykjavik, Iceland, in October 1986 and actually discussed bilateral nuclear disarmament, although the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative, a space-based anti-missile system, proved a stumbling block.
In December of 1987, the two leaders met in Washington to sign limits on short range and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. In 1988 they met twice more, in the Kremlin Palace and in New York City. The latter meeting also included the new American president-elect, George H.W. Bush.
The first President Bush would meet with Gorbachev seven more times, including in Washington in 1990, where they signed the Chemical Weapons Accord, and at a Moscow summit in 1991 where they signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I). Their last meeting was in Madrid in October 1991.
But these frequent, rather friendly encounters were overshadowed by far greater events that were taking place. The Berlin Wall was torn down by Berliners in November 1989, a symbolic moment in a series that would include the reunification of Germany and the collapse of Soviet-style communism in Russia and its former satellites. Bush and Gorbachev toasted the moment on a Russian cruise ship in the Mediterranean, issuing a symbolic declaration that the Cold War had ended.
Bill Clinton: The Moscow Spring
In the new Russian Federation, the Communist Party receded, and a colorful character named Boris Yeltsin became the elected president.
Yeltsin held two summit meetings with the U.S. president, the first in April 1993 during the early months of Bill Clinton’s first term in the White House. The two met in Vancouver, and it was noted the degree to which they represented radical departures from previous norms in their respective countries. By the time they met again in Helsinki in March 1997, they had each been reelected but continued to face significant political opposition at home. Both would be impeached but not removed from office.
In 1999, as Yelstin and Clinton neared the end of their respective terms, there were heightened tensions over the U.S. role in the Kosovo War in the Balkans and over Russian suppression of dissidents and rebels in Chechnya.
In his last year as president, Yeltsin fired his Cabinet (for the fourth time) and appointed a new prime minister. The new man was Vladimir Putin, who was not well known at the time but was soon seen as Yeltsin’s preferred successor. Putin spoke briefly with Clinton at two international meetings in 1999 and 2000.
The Putin era: Two decades and counting
Putin continued the pattern of meeting early with a new U.S. leader, sitting down with President George W. Bush in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in June of 2001, just five months after Bush’s inauguration. It was a relatively uneventful beginning to the new relationship, but it was marked by personal rapport. Bush later said he had “looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy.” He also said: “I was able to get a sense of his soul.” Putin used the word “partner” in reference to the U.S.
In November of 2001, two months after the seminal event of the George W. Bush presidency, the attacks of 9/11, Putin visited Bush at his ranch near Crawford, Texas, and appeared at a local high school.
Putin and Bush held a formal summit meeting in Bratislava, Slovakia, in February of 2005, not long after the latter’s reelection. The disclosed topics of the meeting included discussions about democracy in Russia and Europe, the North Korean nuclear weapons program and the regime in Iran. They also spoke at meetings of the G-8 and had a private meeting at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, in 2007.
When Barack Obama took office in 2009, Putin was taking a time out as president due to term limits, serving as prime minister. But Obama paid a visit to Putin at his dacha outside Moscow in July of that year, expressing optimism about relations between the two counties. Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s carefully chosen stand-in as president, did not have a formal summit with Obama until April of 2010, when they sat down in Prague. There, the two signed a new START agreement aimed at limiting nuclear arsenals. The two had also previously announced they would not deploy certain new weapons systems, either offensive or defensive.
In 2014, Putin was officially back as president and relations with Moscow were tense. Obama and Putin would not have a summit, though they did speak with each other during a meeting of the G-8 in Northern Ireland in June 2013. They reportedly discussed the civil war in Syria and the nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea. They agreed to meet later that year but did not, at least in part because Russia gave asylum to Edward Snowden, a U.S. government contractor who had leaked classified documents.
Thereafter, Obama encouraged the expulsion of Russia from the G-8 as punishment for its illegal annexation of Crimea (a part of Ukraine). The ongoing Russian pressure on Ukraine was reportedly discussed when the two leaders spoke briefly at the June 2014 commemoration of the D-Day invasion.
They also spoke briefly at a G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg in 2013, before the UN General Assembly meeting in New York City in September 2015, and at the G-20 summit in Beijing in the fall of 2016. This was reportedly where Obama told Putin he knew about Russian interference in that year’s election campaign and told him to “cut it out.”
According to U.S. intelligence sources and subsequent investigations, that interference was intended to assist the election of Donald Trump.
If Obama saw the Russians as the clear-cut villains in his international morality play, Trump’s attitude seemed quite the opposite. The consummate transactional politician, Trump saw the Russians literally as a group he could do business with.
Trump and Putin held a number of conversations over the course of Trump’s presidency, beginning at the G-20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany, in July 2017. Another “pull-aside conversation” took place at the Asia-Pacific cooperation summit in November of that year, when Trump reported Putin “said absolutely he did not meddle in our election.”
When the two held their one formal summit meeting in Helsinki in 2018, the Russian interference issue was front and center at the concluding news conference. Trump said Putin had denied the accusation and “I don’t see any reason why it would be,” putting Putin’s denials on a par with U.S. intelligence to the contrary. The next day, Trump said he had full confidence in the U.S. intelligence community and said he meant to say “wouldn’t” instead of “would.”
Putin, who has been in power since 2000, will be formally meeting his fourth U.S. president. Looming over the June 16 exchange with Joe Biden: Russian interference in two U.S. presidential cycles; extensive cyberattacks on U.S. targets that come from Russia or rely on Russian software, according to U.S. intelligence; Russian incursions in Ukraine; the pressuring of other Eastern European neighbors; and the suppression of opposition figures within Russian itself.
Given recent actions from Moscow, expectations are low for any breakthrough in Geneva regarding these issues.