Biden: “I did what I came to do.” US officials, analysts satisfied with Putin summit; but Middle East received limited attention

Before the summit, US officials set a low bar for what would constitute success: to establish the basis for a more stable, more predictable relationship with Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with US President Joe Biden prior to the US-Russia summit at the Villa La Grange, in Geneva on June 16, 2021. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski / AFP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with US President Joe Biden prior to the US-Russia summit at the Villa La Grange, in Geneva on June 16, 2021. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – US officials, starting with the president, have expressed their satisfaction with the meeting on Wednesday between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In a press conference after his meeting with Putin—Biden’s first as president—he proclaimed “I did what I came to do.”

Biden had been in no rush to meet with Putin. Nonetheless, he proposed the summit following Russia’s mobilization of large numbers of troops on its border with Ukraine in April and May. US officials repeatedly expressed puzzlement at the purpose of the Russian move, and it may well have been precisely this: create the tensions that necessitate a meeting between the Russian and US leaders. 

Before the summit, US officials set a low bar for what would constitute success: to establish the basis for a more stable, more predictable relationship with Moscow.

And after the summit, there appeared to be a general consensus—both among administration officials and analysts—that that objective had been met.

Key Issues: Strategic Stability and Cyberattacks

For Biden, as he explained to journalists after his meeting with Putin, his key objective going had been “to discuss and raise the issue of strategic stability and try to set up a mechanism whereby we dealt with it.”

Putin accepted Biden’s proposal and agreed “to launch a strategic stability dialogue,” as the US president explained. Diplomats and military officers from both sides are to work to develop “a mechanism that can lead to control of new and dangerous and sophisticated weapons” that are now emerging, which reduce response times and “raise the prospects of accidental war,” Biden stated.

Cybersecurity was another central topic at the summit. Last month, a major US oil pipeline was hit by a ransomware attack, leading to gasoline shortages on the east coast. It was followed by a second ransomware hack of the world’s largest meat producer. Both attacks came from Russia.

Of course, it is impossible to know with certainty if Russian intelligence was behind the attack; if it was carried out by criminals with a green light from the Kremlin; or if criminals did it without the knowledge of the Russian government.

Whatever the case might be, Biden made clear to Putin that he expects Moscow to make sure such assaults do not happen.

“We spent a great deal of time” discussing “cyber and cybersecurity,” Biden said. “Certain critical infrastructure” needs to be “off limits to attack—period—by cyber or any other means,” he continued, explaining that he had given Putin a list of 16 specific sectors, like energy and water, that constitute critical infrastructure and must not be compromised.

Implicit in Biden’s position was that he expected Putin to control harmful activities emanating from Russian territory, and, if he failed to do so, the US would respond in kind.

Limited Focus on the Middle East

A few Middle Eastern issues did arise in the talks between Biden and Putin, but they do not appear to have been central topics.

Iraq and the fight against ISIS may not even have been discussed. Neither president mentioned them in their press briefings. As the US has made clear that it intends to continue the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria (including its support for the Peshmerga), one might infer that Putin did not challenge that.

Read MoreG7 leaders’ commend,’ reiterate support for Kurdistan Region’s Peshmerga

However, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, and Libya were matters about which the two leaders exchanged views.

The US is withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan over the next few months—and plans to have them all out by the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.

Putin asked about US plans for Afghanistan, as Biden explained. “He said that he hopes that we’re able to maintain some peace and security, and I said, ‘That has a lot to do with you.’”

There have been reports that Russia offered the Taliban bounties for killing US troops in Afghanistan, and Biden’s response may have reflected that he gives some credence to those reports.

Putin “indicated that he was prepared to quote, ‘help,’ on Afghanistan—I won’t go into detail now—and help on Iran,” Biden continued.

“In return, we told him what we wanted to do relative to bringing some stability,” including economic and physical security, “to the people of Syria and Libya,” Biden explained. 

Specifically, the new US administration seeks to restore the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA.) The Russians are party to those discussions, which are ongoing, intermittently, in Vienna. 

Presumably, Moscow is already trying to help achieve a restoration of the JCPOA, and it was not explained what more Putin had offered to do in that regard.

Moscow backs the restoration of the Syrian regime’s control over all of the country. It is now threatening, in effect, to end the UN humanitarian aid program to that part of Syria that remains in rebel hands and is now crowded with displaced persons from other parts of the country: Idlib province.

Only one border crossing is still authorized by the UN Security Council for delivering such aid: Bab al-Hawa, on the Turkish-Syrian border. On July 10, the mandate expires for using it to deliver cross-border relief supplies. 

Russia has said it will oppose a renewal of that mandate. Biden raised that issue with Putin, but received “no commitment,” a senior administration official told reporters. 

“We made clear that this was of significant importance for us, and if there was going to be any further cooperation on Syria,” he continued, “we had to see an extension of the humanitarian crossing.”

Ukraine

In 2014, Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, and it continues to support rebel-held areas in the east of the country that seek to break away from the central government.

As president, Donald Trump seemed to care little about that problem. Rather, he withheld the delivery of vital military supplies to Ukraine in a failed effort to pressure that country to dig up dirt on his likely Democratic challenger in the 2016 elections: Joe Biden, prompting the first House impeachment vote against the former president.

Biden has taken the opposite approach, pledging US support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is to visit Washington next month to meet his US counterpart.

Kurdistan 24 spoke with an observer, Mykola Volkivskyi, on the sidelines of the summit. Volkivkyi is an advisor to the Ukrainian parliament, and he welcomed the “new era” of the Biden presidency. He also expressed his desire to visit Erbil, while indicating his appreciation for the opportunity to explain the plight of his country to a Kurdish audience.