Mustafa Fahs

Biden-Putin: Taking Photos

It is neither a new Yalta nor an exceptional summit, and no unexpected outcomes emerged from it. The two sides were satisfied with agreeing to pursue diplomacy in order to reduce the acrimony of escalation on critical issues, which were on the margins throughout the four hours of dialogue. Each side wanted to exploit the talks to further its agenda after they failed to agree on a general agenda that addresses the sensitive issues affecting international security and stability that have little to do with agreements to limit nuclear capacity, the reinstatement of ambassadors and climate issues.

In Vienna, the wrinkles on Joe Biden's face were indicative of a long career spent in foreign affairs committees at the height of the confrontation with the Soviets during the Cold War. His time in politics has granted him extensive experience in dealing with the Russians and allowed him to understand his counterpart, who has been a rival since their first meeting in Moscow in 2011. However, this rival, whose concern for appearances left his sixty-year-old face wrinkle-free, insists on confronting experience with juvenility, and was thus perhaps able to get what he wanted from the summit.

It was clear that Vladimir Putin got the image that serves him internally. In contrast to Soviet leaders, who used to see bilateral summits with US presidents as an opportunity to snatch international recognition of their leadership at the world stage, considering these summits to be affirmations of their legitimacy abroad, Putin is well aware that his global legitimacy is limited and based upon his policy of quarreling with the West, especially Washington. For this reason, he resorts to investing the summits internally, as he uses them to tighten his grip on power and legitimize his regime, which, unlike the Soviet case, cannot draw on an ideology that controls the state and society. Indeed, his internal legitimacy is constantly under threat because of its ideological frailty, and it suffers from an identity crisis that cannot only be buttressed and enhanced through shows of force like that seen in this summit.

On the other hand, the US leadership was keen on depicting the summit as one of bilateral talks rather than a bipolar dichotomy, especially since the current US administration and Joe Biden are behaving as Cold War victors, with Washington walking back on its global leadership not on the table.

For this reason, the US did not seem interested in talking about a new cold war or a new arms race after it had changed the rules of engagement and reached territory adjacent to Russia's borders, posing a direct threat to Russian national security with its presence in countries from Georgia to Ukraine, passing through Azerbaijan and Belarus, to say nothing about its upper hand economically and financially, which did away with the principle of balance of terror that had shaped the two camps' ties during the Cold War. This has now gone and been replaced by the weaponization of currency, as 66% of global trade is dollarized, allowing Washington to control the global economy and the flow of money around the world, with the weapon of sanctions now only wielded by the United States.

Lukewarm summits with limited results have had a habit of heralding political and strategic crises between the two counties, from the summit that brought Nikita Khrushchev together with Eisenhower in 1959- after which a geopolitical conflict between the two camps erupted in war- to the June 1961 Vienna summit between John F. Kennedy and Khrushchev that yielded ambiguous results, almost igniting a nuclear war a short while afterward.

As for the May 1972 summit, at the heart of which was the Vietnam war, that brought Leonid Brezhnev together with Richard Nixon, it almost ignited a world war in the Middle East. The most important remains the 1979 Vienna summit between Carter and Brezhnev that preceded the Afghanistan war.

While the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in 1985 was a pivotal moment for the future of the Soviet Union, this summit, given the total lack of chemistry between the two presidents and their avoidance of pressing issues, may well lead to strategic disasters.

Based on the above, Vladimir Putin managed to snap a picture, which his security and media agencies shared with all local broadcasters, to give the impression of a victory over the man who had recently described Cesar in the Kremlin as a killer. However, the strategic drainage of Moscow’s ability to deal with critical issues persists, and Washington has established a presence on its geopolitical borders.