A Tale of Three Summits: Russia and the U.S. Once More in Geneva


The June 16 summit between Presidents Biden and Putin was the obvious highlight of 2021 for International Geneva. Almost 1000 journalists from around the world followed the event that re-asserted Geneva’s role as a neutral venue for high level diplomatic talks. But the result of the meeting in no way compares with the Reagan/Gorbachev summit of 1985. 

The upcoming January 10 Geneva meeting between representatives of the United States and the Russian Federation is an opportune moment to compare major high-level discussions between the two superpowers in Geneva, focusing on Reagan/Gorbachev in 1985, Biden/Putin in 2021 and the upcoming January 10, 2022, talks. (The failed reset meeting of Sergei Lavrov/Hillary Clinton is not included.)
U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Union General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev met for the first time in Geneva in November 1985 at a crucial moment in the Cold War. The major point on the agenda was the reduction of nuclear weapons and chemical weapons.
The meeting lasted for two days, the initial meeting lasting longer than expected. A joint statement was issued at the conclusion. Beginning by “acknowledging the differences in their systems and approaches to international issues, some greater understanding of each side's view was achieved by the two leaders,” the concluding statement said, on issues “such as not seeking military superiority, accelerating nuclear space talks, reaffirming their commitment to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and also reaffirming that they are in favor of the general and complete prohibition of chemical weapons and the destruction of existing stockpiles.” 
Aside the formalities, and to show the positive spirit, Nancy Reagan and Raisa Gorbachev accompanied their husbands. In follow-ups, the presidents extended mutual invitations to their counterparts to visit each other’s country. President Reagan gave a resumé of the meeting to a joint session of Congress on November 21 and to the nation by radio on November 23. Gorbachev gave a report on the meeting at a session of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR on November 27, 1985. 
In addition to just hosting the summit, Switzerland played an active role. Edouard Brunner, then Swiss Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, had been asked by the United States to organize the meeting and was an active participant. Brunner and Gorbachev attended a roundtable discussion in Geneva in 2005 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the summit.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Geneva on June 16, 2021. The meeting was the first trip outside the United States for President Biden and the first time he met President Putin as president. Biden had already attended a G7 summit in England and a NATO/EU meeting in Brussels on his trip. Although Biden arrived the day before the meeting, Putin arrived just for the meeting and left soon after. 
For the Americans, the purpose of the meeting was to provide stability and predictability in the bilateral relations. For the Kremlin, the talks revolved around the pandemic and various regional security questions. The actual meeting lasted for just over three hours. Counting translations, the dialogue between the two was no more than 90 minutes. 
No formal final communique was issued. It was agreed that recalled ambassadors would return to their posts. No resumé of the meeting was given to the members of either parliament. A future strategic security dialogue was envisioned but no mutual visits. Neither president was accompanied by his spouse.
President Putin stayed long enough after the meeting to hold a press conference that turned into an extended diatribe of almost one hour against the United States, referring all questions about Russian domestic activities to condemnations of the January 6 Capitol riot, the death of George Floyd and systemic racism in the United States, etc. As for President Biden, his brief press conference of thirty minutes and subsequent comments with reporters focused mainly on domestic U.S. issues. 
The meeting was impeccably organized by Switzerland, but there was no direct input from Switzerland in the discussions. It acted as a neutral host, which I have called hotel diplomacy. Credit should be given to then Swiss Ambassador in New York Jurg Lauber and the Foreign Ministry to have succeeded in having the meeting in Geneva. Foreign Minister Ignacio Cassis had brief meetings with both sides, but no clear results were evident. Difficult to anticipate a roundtable taking place in 2041 to commemorate the meeting.
The upcoming January 10 meeting between representatives of the United States and the Russian Federation is part of three meetings to diffuse the situation in Ukraine and respond to Russia’s demand for “legal guarantees of its security”. The January 10 meeting will be followed by meetings in Brussels on January 12 with NATO and the EU as well as a January 13 meeting in Vienna with the OSCE, similar to how the June 16 meeting was part of prior Biden commitments. 
Neither president is scheduled to attend the meeting in Geneva or the subsequent meetings. The focus will be on Russia’s build-up of troops along its border with Ukraine, continued NATO eastern expansion with troops, military exercises and missiles on Russia’s border. Several telephone conversations have taken place between Biden and Putin in anticipation of the meetings. No major role for Swiss diplomats is anticipated except to guarantee the smooth functioning of the meeting. No specific agenda has been publicized nor have the attendees been revealed.
The Reagan/Gorbachev summit came during the Cold War when Mutual Assured Destruction was still a possibility. The resulting reduction in nuclear arms and destruction of chemical weapons gave the anxious world a sigh of relief. It was a major breakthrough in East-West relations.
The June 16, 2021, and the upcoming January 10 meeting are part of the reorientation of the post-Cold War political environment. The end of the Soviet Union has posed numerous challenges to the Russian Federation, including its relation to NATO’s expansion. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and uncertainty are its western border are clashing with the euphoric western reaction to the fall of the Berlin Wall. 
Geneva’s role as a neutral venue for deliberations is a boon to International Geneva, but also a reminder that Cold War tensions between East and West have not disappeared. Whereas the Reagan/Gorbachev was a landmark event in easing tensions, the June 16 and January 10 meetings are less significant. A nuclear war seems far off the radar. But finding a proper place for the Russian Federation in a European security framework is still very much a work in progress. As long as tensions continue between Russia and the West, neutral Geneva will continue to be the ideal neutral venue for discussions, whatever the level and subjects.

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