Encouraging Words That Require Action: Comments on the Geneva Summit

President Biden met, for the first time since his inauguration, Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 16 in Geneva. While the summit meeting didn’t produce any dramatic breakthroughs in US-Russian relations, it did provide some encouraging signs. The two countries’ joint statement, released after the summit, contained an important declaration on the evil of nuclear war that peace activists had urged the American and Russian governments to make.[1] The summit might open the door for limited but significant cooperation between the world’s two largest nuclear powers.

A Rocky Few Months

Prior to the summit, the Biden administration’s policies toward Russia had been uneven. In January, the administration took the important and encouraging step of extending the START Treaty, which placed limits on both the United States and Russia’s nuclear arsenals. The treaty was set to expire in February 2021, and the Trump administration had been dragging its feet on extending START. Had the treaty expired, an important check on nuclear weapons would have been lost. However, the Biden administration, together with the Russian government, managed to save START at the last minute, extending the treaty to 2026.[2]

The hopeful first step of START’s extension was followed, though, by actions from both nations that increased tensions. In March, Biden infamously characterized Putin as a “killer,” which was followed by Russia recalling its ambassador to the United States.[3] In April, the United States recalled its ambassador to Russia, leaving both nations without these top channels for communication.[4]

Also in the first half of 2021, the United States imposed new sanctions on Russia, which elicited Russian counter-measures.[5] Russia massing its troops close to Ukraine further increased international tensions, although the troops were later reduced.[6]

Perhaps most disturbing, the United States confirmed that it would withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty with Russia, citing alleged Russian violations of the treaty. Open Skies promoted transparency in US-Russian relations by allowing both countries to conduct reconnaissance flights over each other’s territory. The Trump administration decided to withdraw from the treaty, and the Biden administration upheld that decision in May.[7]

Hopeful Signs at the Summit

These events, and the generally arctic state of US-Russian relations, were the context for the Geneva summit meeting. Nevertheless, a few flashes of hope emerged from Biden and Putin’s meeting.

The US and Russia will send their ambassadors back to their posts, restoring that line of diplomatic communication.[8] The joint US-Russian statement released after the summit says, “The recent extension of the New START Treaty exemplifies our commitment to nuclear arms control” and promises future talks on arms control, as well as measures to reduce the risk of conflict.[9]

Perhaps most significant, the joint statement contains the comment “Today, we reaffirm the principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”[10] Such language echoes that of the famous 1985 joint US-Soviet statement, released following Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev’s meeting in Geneva.[11] The 1985 statement, coming at another time of great international tension, provided reassurance that both nations recognized the catastrophic threat of nuclear war and were determined to avoid it.

Also, the joint statement responds, intentionally or not, to an appeal made shortly before the summit by a coalition of American and Russian advocates for nuclear arms control.

The appeal, organized by the Arms Control Association, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, and the Pugwash Conferences on Science and Global Affairs, called on Biden and Putin to reaffirm the 1985 Geneva statement on nuclear war. The appeal also urged both presidents to “a bilateral strategic dialogue…leading to further reduction of the nuclear risk hanging over the world and to the re-discovery of the road to a world free of nuclear weapons.”[12] While nothing so significant is currently planned, the promise of future talks is at least a step in the right direction.

Beyond these specific outcomes, the overall attitude both Biden and Putin expressed after the summit is encouraging. Each president was measured in his evaluation of the US-Russia relationship, being neither highly optimistic nor pessimistic about the future.

Biden told reporters that he and Putin “share a unique responsibility to manage the relationship between two powerful and proud countries — a relationship that has to be stable and predictable…[W]e should be able to cooperate where it’s in our mutual interests.” He also commented, “[T]his is not about trust; this is about self-interest and verification of self-interest.”[13]

Putin similarly said, about working with Biden, “This does not mean we have to peek into each other’s souls, look into each other’s eyes and swear eternal love and friendship – not at all. We defend the interests of our countries, our peoples, and our relations are always primarily pragmatic in nature.”[14]

While hardly effusive declarations of friendship, these presidential comments suggest at least a desire for a stable working relationship. The restrained rhetoric is actually reassuring, as hopes for a friendly US-Russian relationship are hardly realistic at present and would likely just be disappointed. Proceeding in a sober, pragmatic spirit is probably best.

Going Forward

What remains to be seen is whether these hopeful signs will lead to results. In particular, the promise of future arms control and risk reduction measures must be kept. Peace activists should not leave this matter purely to policymakers but should continue to push for a more stable US-Russian relationship. We need to lobby for further arms control agreements—and, if feasible, a restoration of the Open Skies Treaty. We also need to lobby against sinking any more money into building or renovating nuclear weapons. The encouraging words of the Geneva summit need to be translated into action.

A version of this essay originally appeared on the Consistent Life Network blog.


[1] White House, “U.S.-Russia Presidential Joint Statement on Strategic Stability,” June 16, 2021, https://bit.ly/3wiJcr8.

[2] Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos, “U.S., Russia Extend New START for Five Years,” Arms Control Today, February 5, 2021, https://bit.ly/2TnvjL7.

[3] Yuliya Talmazan, “Putin Says Biden’s ‘Killer’ Jab Reflects U.S. History as Russia Recalls Ambassador,” NBC News, March 18, 2021, https://nbcnews.to/3ycKGEG.

[4] Andrew Roth and Julian Borger, “US Ambassador to Leave Moscow as Tensions Rise,” Guardian, April 20, 2021, https://bit.ly/3dWKaTR.

[5] Agence France-Presse, “The Main US Sanctions against Russia,” April 15, 2021, https://bit.ly/3Ao2nDf; Andrew Osborn and Tom Balmforth, “Russia, Retaliating against Washington, Asks 10 U.S. Diplomats to Leave,” Reuters, April 16, 2021, https://reut.rs/3jAh9AQ.

[6] Paul D. Shinkman, “Russia Announces Withdrawal of Troops from Ukraine Border,” US News and World Report, April 22, 2021, https://bit.ly/3ydAsUs.

[7] BBC, “Open Skies Treaty: US Tells Russia It Will Not Rejoin Key Arms Control Deal,” May 28, 2021, https://bbc.in/2Ujte2T.

[8] President of Russia, “News Conference Following Russia-US Talks,” June 16, 2021, https://bit.ly/2UiqbYz.

[9] White House, “U.S.-Russia Presidential Joint Statement on Strategic Stability.”

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum, “Joint Soviet-United States Statement on the Summit Meeting in Geneva,” November 21, 1985, https://bit.ly/3yjSZ1K.

[12] Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, “High-Level Group Issues Appeal to Biden and Putin to Reduce Nuclear Weapons Dangers,” June 8, 2021, https://bit.ly/3htQz9Z; Pugwash and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, “An Appeal to Presidents Biden and Putin on the Occasion of their Summit Meeting,” June 7, 2021, https://bit.ly/3qJb86f.

[13] White House, “Remarks by President Biden in Press Conference,” June 16, 2021, https://bit.ly/3htHtKm.

[14] President of Russia, “News Conference Following Russia-US Talks.”

© 2021 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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