Soon, Mr. Biden, our country will be hosting your meeting with President Putin of Russia. Geneva is an excellent venue for it. We are a neutral country and take much pride in that. Both important guests can be assured of a reception with the utmost courtesy and dignity.
The world saw that you took a bold first step in proposing this meeting. Indeed it was an act of bravery in the face of the domestic circumstances you face.
I follow US-Russia relations very carefully. It was alarming to see the pushback you received even from your administration. In early June CNN reported, “US ambassador to Russia warned senators that Biden administration risks repeating predecessors’ mistakes in dealing with Putin.”
Sen. Ben Sasse insisted that you should be “treating Putin like a gangster who fears his own people” instead of “legitimizing his actions with a summit,” according to Politico.
But given the high level of tensions between the two countries it would have been risky to remain essentially incommunicado. Both nations had recalled their respective ambassadors. That left room for much misunderstanding to exist and for public statements to be misinterpreted. Congratulations to you for your assertive step toward a summit.
My fervent hope is that the meeting will proceed in accordance with your host nation’s values for courtesy and dignity. Recent news reports have given the world concerns whether that will come to pass.
Lamentably I’ve seen a spiraling series of statements that give rise to concern. Your summit proposal was greeted with great skepticism both in your country and in Russia.
A US talk radio commentator alleged that “Putin is bossing around Biden.” The Wall Street Journal ran the headline, “Has Biden Lost His Nerve with Putin?” The Hill commented, “He should cancel his coming summit with Putin.” Equally troubling was a report from RT, the Kremlin-controlled broadcaster, proclaiming, “Putin and Biden summit will delight media, but it won’t change anything.”
Perhaps defensively, you responded to the effect that at the summit you will be tough on Putin over his malign activities. That prompted an escalation in which Putin warned that unwarranted Biden criticism would receive an “uncomfortable” response.
It is hard to understand how that kind of back and forth can be a constructive prelude to a summit. Putting each other on the defensive isn’t going to be a gateway to progress. Opening positive communication channels would be a more promising approach.
Accordingly allow me to offer several suggestions for having a successful summit here in Switzerland:
- Seek agreement for the return of the respective ambassadors. That wouldn’t be a sign of weakness as your critics might suggest. It would help you in pursuing a more normal relationship with Russia. You could explain to your domestic critics that reliable and unambiguous communications between the two counties during this time of tension is clearly in America’s best interests. This significant move toward normalizing relations will also have economic benefits for American businesses. The current situation has caused damage to American companies doing business in and with Russia. Your call to return ambassadors is an easy one for you to make and it is easy to implement. It will set the course in the right direction.
- The matter of Russian cyberattacks looms large in your media. It is a serious problem. But with all due respect, I must confirm that the American approach to dealing with it looks very shortsighted. Think if the tables were turned. What if some unsavory characters in America were behind cyberattacks on entities in Russia? Would you react cooperatively if President Putin started a dialog by accusing you personally of being behind them? Wouldn’t you be more receptive if the Russian president instead said, “Look, we’re getting these cyberattacks that appear to be coming from your country. Can we work together to get to the source of the problem?” Clearly wouldn’t that put Putin in a position to learn more through that approach? And the same would work for you. If you go in attacking Putin, you will probably learn nothing. If you go in requesting cooperation you may make some headway. Maybe it will uncover state culpability or maybe you’ll find another culprit. The bottom line is that the current US approach leads to a dead end. Requesting Russian cooperation may get you somewhere.
- I also know that you are being pressed to insist on the return to Ukraine of Donbass and Crimea. The situation in Donbass is very complex and deadly. It deserves a summit of its own sometime soon. Such a meeting should be preceded by a lot of cooperative strategizing between US and Russian high level staff.
Crimea, on the other hand, can have a simpler solution. If you have advisors telling you that it is practical to induce Russia to relinquish Crimea, they are not being straight with you. I won’t even try to argue that with you. It just is not going to happen short of another bloody war, even if then. Please realize that and have no false illusions.
Russia has a strategic military base on Crimea. If you were in Putin’s position, you wouldn’t give that up either, would you? In addition, the Crimean population is ethnically Russian by a strong majority. The Washington Post reported on a 2019 study that found that 82 percent of Crimeans support staying with Russia. They aren’t going to want to be told what to do by the United States.
I think you are a practical man. This should be easy for you to grasp. But yet you still have your domestic pressure groups urging you to pursue a foolish course. Recently I heard of a solution proposed by a brilliant Western analyst at a Washington NGO. He points out that Russia has refused to recognize the separation of Kosovo from Serbia. Your country was a key instrument in bringing about that separation. This analyst suggests negotiating a quid pro quo: Russia would agree to recognize the separation of Kosovo; the United States would agree to recognize the separation of Crimea. No party has to endorse the means by which each territory got to where it is. This is just a recognition of the current facts on the ground that realistically won’t change. Doing otherwise is as productive as hitting one’s head against a stone wall.
The analyst calls for one precondition. It is to hold a UN supervised referendum in Crimea: stay with Russia or return to Ukraine. I think to balance the deal there would also have to be a similar referendum in Kosovo: remain independent or return to Serbia. There is no risk here for anyone. The choice of retaining the status quo is a quite a foregone conclusion. Not only will this plan bring peace of mind to the regions, but it will also eliminate a pressure point on you and allow you to focus on issues that can actually be negotiated.
Please consider these suggestions. They are offered earnestly from here in neutral Switzerland. My principal interest is in seeing that the summit held on our territory will be one that advances peace and understanding. The whole world will benefit from that.
Pascal Najadi is a Swiss businessman with extensive experience in investment banking, public relations, and marketing. He works internationally in several countries around the globe. That has led him to assist world governments that have faced serious crisis management challenges. Najadi specializes in using his hands-on intercultural and social-competence skills to the great advantage of his clients. In Russia he is a member of the Public Board of Factor GMO, the world’s largest NGO for the study of GMO foods and related pesticides.