Is it good to talk? A history of the west’s summits with Russia | Russia

So high have the stakes been set by Russia over the future security architecture of Europe, and so imminent is the threat of war in Ukraine, that the three separate meetings arranged between Russia and the west this week are drawing comparison with some of the great western-Russian exchanges of the past, from Yalta in 1945 to Paris in 1960, over the future of Berlin, and Reykjavik in 1986.

Vladimir Putin, with his keen sense of his place in Russian history, would probably revel in these comparisons. Indeed, the very scheduling of the three meetings – a bilateral security meeting with the US on Monday, a rare meeting of the Nato-Russian Council on Wednesday and an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) meeting on Ukraine on Thursday – is seen by some as a mistake.

Winston Churchill with Franklin D Roosevelt and Josef Stalin with their advisers at the Yalta agreement talks February 1945
Winston Churchill with Franklin D Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin at the Yalta agreement talks in February 1945. The agreement was instrumental to the partitioning of Germany and the inception of the United Nations. Photograph: PA

Françoise Thom, a historian of Russia based at the Sorbonne, said: “There is nothing more dangerous than these summit exchanges, which, whatever one may say, inevitably feed into Russian ruling elites’ either paranoia or delusions of grandeur and intoxication with power. If the west is firm, the Kremlin concludes that it wants to destroy Russia; if the west offers concessions, the Kremlin concludes that it is weak and pressure should be increased.

“Very often the best policy with Russia is that of silence and distance: do nothing, say nothing and stand your ground. Clinging to dialogue at all costs, especially when Moscow keeps us at gunpoint like a madman holding a hostage, only shows our weakness and encourages the Kremlin to escalate.”

But Joe Biden has clearly taken the view that with allied self-discipline and unity, the risks of being seen to be rewarding Putin are outweighed by the need for dialogue, and diplomatic reconnaissance.

Not to talk would be to feed the Russian narrative that the west is not prepared even to listen. Besides, it is billed as a dialogue, not a negotiation, officials say.

The specific agenda of each meeting next week is subtly different, and while the west will want the discussion to focus on the sovereignty of Ukraine, and missile placement, Russia will want a response to its threefold formal demands set out last month in draft treaties: the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Europe, the removal of Nato forces close to Russian borders, and the legal permanent renunciation of Nato membership for Ukraine and Georgia, as part of a commitment to end Nato’s enlargement.

One way or other, these have been the permanent demands of the Russian political elite for the past 20 years. Putin’s demands bear comparison with Dmitry Medvedev’s largely ignored European security treaty proposal in 2009, but this time the demands are being presented in a more peremptory fashion. Indeed, some western officials fear they have been packaged to be rejected.

Dmitry Medvedev, Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel at the end of a press conference in Deauville, France, in October 2010.
Dmitry Medvedev, Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel at the end of a press conference in Deauville, France, in October 2010. Photograph: Horacio Villalobos / EPA

In Ukraine there is concern that dialogue with Russia on the future security architecture of Europe, under threat of blackmail and without a formal presence of the EU bloc, will be taken as vindication by Putin. From Putin’s perspective, he has already made progress, and can make more. Russian thinktanks such as IMEMO are claiming, for instance, that the meeting shows “the ice has already broken”.

It is the bread and butter of diplomacy to judge whether to “parley” – as Churchill put it – with an adversary either in the open or through a back channel, or instead to sit tight and wait. Never is that judgment more acute than in the case of Russia.

The cold war US diplomat George Kennan’s contention was that “Moscow is a special case”. It saw security “only in [a] patient but deadly struggle for total destruction of [the] rival power, never in compacts and compromises with it”. He said the Soviet Union under Stalin was a master at distorting bromide American offers of dialogue, for example over the future of Berlin in April 1949, into a full-scale offer to redraw the map of Europe. The solution was patience and containment.

Henry Kissinger for a period was to argue that the state department was populated by naive men that believed well-constructed argument could persuade Russia. The whole idea of signing treaties with Russia was to misunderstand the mentality. Russia, it was said, operated by probing for weaknesses, “by kicking all the doors and seeing which fell off their hinges”.

Alexander Cadogan, the UK Foreign Office’s wartime permanent secretary made a similar point in his diaries about asymmetry in talking to Russia: “Everything favours the evildoer. Any honest government fights (in peacetime) with two hands tied behind its back. The brilliant blatancy of the Russians is something that we can admire but cannot emulate. It gives them a great advantage.”

By contrast, most politicians’ instinct is often to parley, or seek a reset or trust personal charm. Churchill once said all the world’s problems could be solved if only he could meet Joseph Stalin once a week. John F Kennedy argued it was better to “meet at the summit than at the brink”, something the US attempted more regularly after the shock of the Cuban missile crisis. Famously at the 1986 Reykjavik conference a personal rapport between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev led them to the brink of abandoning nuclear weapons. George Shultz, the US secretary of state recalled that in advance “there was a unique sense of uncertainty in the air … Nothing seemed predictable.” Gorbachev’s surprise plan, nearly taken up by Reagan, showed the value of dialogue, even if Margaret Thatcher later confided her despair with Reagan to Robin Butler, her cabinet secretary: “He knows nothing, Robin.”

Mikhail Gorbachev talks to Ronald Reagan in Reykjavik during their October 1986 summit meeting
Mikhail Gorbachev talks to Ronald Reagan in Reykjavik during their October 1986 summit meeting. Photograph: Mike Sargent/AFP

Reagan’s successor, George HW Bush, promised no more chaotic Reykjaviks, but at a summit in Malta in 1989, the first meeting since the fall of the Berlin Wall, he too was captured by Gorbachev’s sense of history unfolding (“the United States and the USSR are doomed to cooperate for a long time”) and by his plea that “we have to abandon the images of an enemy”. In reality, Gorbachev was betrayed at a dinner the next evening in Brussels where Bush gave Chancellor Kohl the green light for Germany’s unification, opening the long argument about the terms of Nato’s expansion eastwards, starting with East Germany.

With Gorbachev crushed by events, the Bill and Boris show ensued. Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin, tasked with integrating Russia into the international system, met face to face 18 times, often clashing about Nato expansion, leading Yeltsin to describe a cold peace. The apogee may have been the summit in Birmingham in 1998, when relations were so intimate they exchanged their respective confidential briefing cards. That relationship probably collapsed in a phone call of uncontrolled fury over the Nato bombing of Serbia a year later. It showed that when fundamental interests conflict, as they did over Nato, personal relations take you so far.

Thereafter the era of two men sitting alone to solve the world was over. Barack Obama signed a new strategic arms control treaty, Start, in April 2010 with Medvedev, but the return of Putin to the presidency in 2012 saw the reset fizzle out.

Boris Yeltsin receives Bill Clinton at Yeltsin’s residence during the 1998 G8 summit in Birmingham, England
Boris Yeltsin receives Bill Clinton at Yeltsin’s residence during the 1998 G8 summit in Birmingham, UK. Photograph: Tass/Getty Images

In essence the dispute about the wisdom of dialogue comes down to whether Russia is seen to be driven by insecurity or imperial expansionism. In policy terms that meant choosing between an emphasis on arms control or Nato expansion.

But there is also a professional diplomat’s aversion to unstructured large-scale gatherings, whether they involve Russia or not. Harold Nicolson, after a long diplomatic career, argued in the Commons in 1935: “It is a terrible mistake to conduct negotiations between foreign ministers … international negotiations were best left to the professionals. Diplomacy is not the art of conversation. It is the art of the exchange of documents in a carefully considered and precise form and in such a way that they cannot be repudiated later … Diplomacy by conference is a mistake.”

The worry for the professional diplomat is that in the emotion of the moment, resolve dissipates and pre-set red lines are rubbed out, and allies betrayed.

With the Biden administration, the expectation is this week’s discussions will be far more structured, predictable and scripted. In theory, since neither of the principals – Biden and Putin – will be present in Geneva, there should be no rush of blood to the head by men of goodwill, but instead a staking out of familiar positions.

Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin meet for the US-Russia summit at Villa La Grange in Geneva, Switzerland, in June 2021.
Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin meet for the US-Russia summit at Villa La Grange in Geneva, Switzerland, in June 2021. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

The US messaging, bolstered by the UK, has been carefully framed, and seems well coordinated with Europe. Expansion of Nato was inherent in the Nato-Russia Founding Act signed by Boris Yeltsin in 1997. No country can determine another country’s foreign alliances, as Russia agreed in the Helsinki Final Act 1975, and again in the Budapest memorandum in 1994. In the words of Sauli Niinistö, the Finnish president, in his striking new year address: “Spheres of interest do not belong to the 2020s. The sovereign equality of all states is the basic principle that everyone should respect.”

But the test, according to Evelyn Farkas, a former US deputy assistant secretary of defence for Russia, will be whether Putin sees this week’s talks as a piece of political theatre, a moment to issue an ultimatum, or whether he sanctions Russia getting into the weeds, and starts to negotiate. Few hold out much hope for the latter.

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