by Daniel Kalder
Wednesday, 16
June 2021
Explainer
11:35

After 50 years of talks, Joe Biden still doesn’t get Russia

A lot has changed since the President first visited in 1973
by Daniel Kalder
Joe Biden on a 1979 visit to the USSR

Today Joe Biden will meet Vladimir Putin in Geneva for a summit that nobody is feeling very optimistic about. This is not the first time they have met, nor is Biden himself any stranger to dealing with Russia and its leaders. America today is a gerontocracy after all, and the nation is led by a president who has more direct experience of negotiating the minefield of Russia-US relations than perhaps any before him.

Biden first visited Moscow almost half a century ago in 1973, when he was a freshman senator and it was the capital of the USSR. He visited again in 1979 when then-president Jimmy Carter appointed him head of a delegation to get an arms reduction treaty over the line. On that trip Biden met Leonid Brezhnev, who was then, as he is now, a byword for an incredibly ancient leader — yet he was six years younger than Biden is today.

Although the Republicans held the presidency throughout the 80s, Biden, as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, continued to be called upon to negotiate with the USSR. He visited Moscow again in 1984, when the Cold War was very cold and then once more in 1988, when perestroika and glasnost were at their peak. Photos from that trip 33 years ago show the Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko chatting with the future president, who is mysteriously balder than he is today…

However, although Biden had a lot of experience negotiating arms reduction treaties with Soviet leaders, he did not understand Russia particularly well. In the late 1990s he argued that the Russians would “moderate, not exacerbate, their attitudes towards dominion” if NATO, a military alliance which had been invented to contain the USSR, expanded to include what Biden referred to as their “former charges”.

This surely belongs on the “very stupid” end of the scale of geopolitical prophecy. Russia and America’s relationship deteriorated as NATO expanded (although there were additional reasons, of course). By the time Biden became Vice President in 2009, the second Gulf War and the Russia-Georgia war of 2008 had made matters even worse, but there were nonetheless hopes of a “reset.”

In 2011 Biden visited Moscow again, during that weird period when Dmitri Medvedev was pretending to be Putin’s boss. But Putin was greatly displeased when the US backed the colour revolution in Ukraine that deposed his ally Viktor Yanukovych, and further displeased when the US bombed Libya. America was similarly displeased when Putin sent in his “little green men” to annex the Crimea. It was clear that the two countries were not friends.

Indeed, Biden is open about his distaste for the Russian president. In his autobiography he claims that when he first met Putin he told him he didn’t have a soul; his presidency had barely begun when he referred to Putin as a “killer”. In the run up to today’s meeting, however, he modified his tone slightly, describing Putin instead as a “worthy adversary.”

After so many years as an emissary acting on someone else’s orders, this is the first time that Biden has met a Russian leader as the man in charge. It would seem, however, that all that experience has left him doubtful that there is much to be gained beyond a slightly more cordial tone to a permanent state of conflict. The road to complete disillusionment was long and winding, but he got there in the end.

Join the discussion


  • You gotta hand it to him, he, his hair follicles, certainly have staying power, or at least, like Trump, have an illusion of clinging on despite what the rest of the world might think is naturally possible.

  • I don’t pretend to know Russia and the Russians. But I read its history. Two things seem to be constant throughout time, from the time of Vikings to the time of Putin, the autocrat as their preferred mode of ruling and deep paranoia about their neighbours. They are very different from western Europe I even add that they aren’t Europeans at all.

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