On the 24-hour Russian state news channel, Thursday began as any other might: with a segment about the ageing president of the United States battling back cicadas and then giving a “confused” speech about his upcoming summit in Geneva with Vladimir Putin.
“I’ll let [Putin] know what I want him to know,’” said Biden after a cutaway shot of him swatting his neck before boarding Air Force One this week.
Signs of a thaw between Russia and the US ahead of Wednesday’s summit are not immediately evident on state TV, but then again that is the last place that they would be.
For years, bellicose news segments about the west and especially Ukraine have been outdone only by the even shoutier news debate shows, where Russian experts compete to give the loudest, most hawkish review of recent political developments. The rare liberals who join them are ritually squashed.
Not quite a mirror of the Kremlin’s thinking, Russia’s TV pundits are keener to flatter the leadership from all angles: painting Biden as a doddering grandfather, then as an elder statesman bowing to the need to meet with Putin, then as a schoolboy fearing his upcoming clash with the Russian president. “Poor and unhappy [Biden],” simpered the host of one show, 60 Minutes, mocking remarks by the White House about his preparations for the talks.
Biden’s team has made little secret of his rigorous preparations; indeed, his wife, Jill, declared him “over-prepared”. The White House insists the president has no illusions about a “Russian reset”, but Biden argues that there are some issues –such as arms control and possibly the climate emergency – that the two leaders have to discuss, and is pressing to reestablish a routine strategic dialogue between US and Russian officials.
“We’re not looking for conflict,” the president said on Sunday. “We are looking to resolve those actions which we think are inconsistent with international norms, number one. Number two, where we can work together, we may be able to do that in terms of some strategic doctrine that - that may be able to be worked together. We’re ready to do it.”
In an NBC News interview broadcast on Monday, Putin said he would consider establishing such a dialogue, depending on how Wednesday’s summit went.
In the real world, the last week has given little inkling of a coming breakthrough. A Russian court’s decision on Thursday evening to outlaw Alexei Navalny’s organisation as “extremist” will reassert the issue of human rights in Russia on the summit’s agenda. And Russia’s backing for Alexander Lukashenko will also lead to a battle over what Moscow claims as a sphere of influence in Belarus and Ukraine, despite the breakup of the Soviet Union more than 30 years ago.
“I don’t know how you get around that,” said Melinda Haring of the Atlantic Council during a recent roundtable hosted by the Center for National Interest, a Washington thinktank. “Ukraine, Belarus, Russia’s domestic politics, Nato expansion, all revolve around who owns what. Do Belarusians get to decide their future, do Ukrainians get to decide their future, or does Vladimir Putin? I think it’s an insurmountable problem.”
Analysts suggested that the upcoming summit would be “boring” and a carefully-controlled “snoozefest” as both sides attempted something of a reboot following a catastrophic meeting between Putin and Donald Trump in Helsinki in 2017, which Trump insisted on holding without any aides. Top US aides were apoplectic as Trump emerged from one-on-one talks with Putin and rejected his own FBI’s assessment that Russia had interfered in the 2016 elections. “President Putin says it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be,” he told reporters. One advisor later said she considered faking a medical emergency to end the press conference.
In a statement on Thursday, Trump repeated that he had more faith in Putin than in US intelligence, and asked Biden to send the Russian leader his “warmest regards”. In his NBC interview, Putin returned the compliment, describing Trump as an “extraordinary, talented individual”.
The White House does not want a joint press conference this time. Biden told reporters: “This is not a contest about who can do better in front of a press conference to try to embarrass each other.”
Other than avoiding a scandal, there appears to be little that Moscow and Washington can agree on. Relations between Russia and the US are at their worst in recent memory, littered with conflicts over Russian aggression in Ukraine, alleged elections interference in the US, and cyber-attacks. Russia has accused the U S and Nato of meddling in neighbouring countries in eastern Europe, while Putin has sought to equate the Trump supporters who stormed the US Congress in January with a crackdown on Russia’s street opposition.
If there is scope for agreement, it will likely be linked to saving the remaining nuclear arms control architecture, which saw further disintegration during the Trump administration as the U S refused to discuss renewing New START and pulled out of the Open Skies Treaty, a move that was formalised by Russia this month.
But otherwise, it is difficult to figure out the way forward.
“I think they are meeting to try to figure out why they need bilateral relations between Russia and the United States,” said Andrey Sushentsov of Russia’s Valdai Discussion Club.
The change of administration in the White House could produce a positive dynamic, he said, as could the Biden administration’s adoption of the goal of “stable and predictable” relations with Moscow, a deliberately practical agenda that he said mirrored Russia’s foreign policy.
He said the meeting could allow the two sides to do “housekeeping” to prevent the competition from devolving into a more dangerous stage.
Success from Moscow’s perspective could be judged on a modest scale, he said.
“We should look for signs that both teams respect each other as professionals,” he said. “And can this team deliver? Can Biden deliver? Because during the Trump administration, that was not the case.”
Additional reporting by Julian Borger in Washington