Vladimir Putin’s first interview with an American television news outlet in three years was a big hit for Russia’s networks, perhaps strategically so.
The Russian president has been widely broadcast and widely discussed on state media platforms. In it, Putin responded to one question with a Russian schoolyard rhyme and alluded to the satirical Soviet novel “The Little Golden Calf” in another — references aimed at a Russian audience rather than an American one.
Putin’s tone was dismissive and, at times, nonchalant as he was pressed on issues such as Moscow’s cyberattacks on the US and whether he orders the killings of his political opponents. It echoed Kremlin messaging at home ahead of Putin’s planned meeting with President Biden in Geneva on Wednesday: Putin agreed to the meeting at the request of the Americans, but will not give anything up.
Russian officials and propagandists have repeatedly stated that they do not expect the summit to produce any significant breakthroughs in the post-Cold War relationship between the United States and Russia. They have worked hard to portray Putin as approaching the situation from a position of strength, owing to the fact that he has little to lose or gain.
“Putin’s recent messages to the rest of the world are less about what he can do together with the American president, and more about what Russia can do alone — and, if necessary, against the wishes of the US government,” wrote Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, in a commentary.
According to analysts, the main purpose of Putin’s face-to-face is to express Moscow’s red lines while also reestablishing more normal dialogue with Washington after a tense first six months under Biden’s administration.
“Perhaps the most important thing is to make the relationships more pragmatic,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, head of the R.Politik think tank. “I don’t think the Kremlin is expecting significant progress during the summit; what happens after the summit will be far more important. The Kremlin wishes to establish some mechanisms for interaction.”
The US ambassador to Russia, John Sullivan, and his Russian counterpart, Anatoly Antonov, have been back in their home countries since April. Antonov was summoned to Moscow for “consultations” after Biden responded in the affirmative when asked if Putin is a “killer.” The Kremlin then advised Sullivan to return to Washington following a new round of US sanctions and diplomatic expulsions.
Analysts believe that the return of the two envoys to their posts will be the most positive and tangible outcome of the summit.
However, some issues are likely to be contentious. According to analysts, the subject of Ukraine and its potential admission to NATO is the most sensitive for Putin. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has advocated for Kyiv to become a full member, but Biden stated at a news conference in Brussels on Monday that “it remains to be seen.” He went on to say that Ukraine must first meet the criteria, which include cleaning up corruption.
“In the meantime,” Biden said, “we will do everything we can to put Ukraine in a position to continue to resist Russian physical aggression.”
Putin has also begun to criticize Biden’s stated intention to discuss Russia’s human rights violations during the summit. Putin called the United States hypocritical earlier this month at a business conference in St. Petersburg, attempting to draw an analogy between Moscow’s sweeping crackdown on political opposition and the United States’ prosecution of rioters who attacked the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6.
Rather than responding to Western calls to release imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Putin has used geopolitical hostilities to justify stifling dissent. He claims that Navalny and his associates are acting at the behest of Western intelligence agencies.
While Russian state media praised Putin’s seemingly carefree demeanor ahead of the summit, one television talk show host, Vladimir Solovyov, said Biden’s decision not to hold a joint news conference with Putin after the summit demonstrates that “the Americans are nervous.”