June 18, 2021

The Summit that never happened … or did it?


The takeaway for Ukraine is that the Biden-Putin summit in Geneva apparently did take place. There were two press conferences, one by each of the principals to prove that. Apparently, the only tangible result was the renewed exchange of ambassadors. For the American cynic this was a far cry from Helsinki and thus a major victory for the American side. But success cannot be measured by Trump years.

Russian President Vladimir Putin at his press conference was aggressive, criticizing the United States for its disorder but acknowledging that the meeting was not hostile. Mr. Putin was speaking from a current position of strength: energy prices are very high and Russia recently activated Nord Stream 2 in some part thanks to an American waiver of sanctions.

U.S. President Joe Biden was presidential, meaning vanilla and subdued. I have to congratulate the press for trying to arouse him. At his press conference, Mr. Biden went over the points he allegedly made with Mr. Putin and he declined to make any even mildly confrontational remarks, although the press seemed to clamor for some action.

There was none, even after he took off his jacket, and after the conference officially concluded and the president continued to spar mildly with members of the press. His support for Ukraine was one line and not supported by any argument except that these are principles upon which America was founded. Perhaps the single most questionable comment he made was referring to Mr. Putin’s credibility in the world and the Russian leader’s concern therewith. How significant was that?

In the eyes of the world and the American people, Mr. Biden held his own. Unfortunately, that is not enough. Because he was meeting with a killer. That is my subjective perspective, one that can be supported by evidence from history, and which may, and probably, unfortunately, will manifest itself in the near future.

Mr. Putin is Mr. Putin, and Mr. Biden is Mr. Biden. Mr. Putin is an assassin both literally and figuratively. Mr. Biden is neither. Who is smarter or more educated is irrelevant.

However, there is no doubt who is craftier. For Joe Biden the purpose of this summit was to establish a diplomatic relationship and to set the record straight following the disaster that was former U.S. President Donald Trump. For Mr. Putin the purpose was entirely different. It was to take stock of the person and leader that is Joe Biden, to determine how far he (Mr. Biden) would go to defend his positions.

And then there are at least several relevant and even crucial positions. American security is one consideration. Territorial integrity and sovereignty, as well as human rights in other countries, including Russia itself, is an entirely different issue. Yet these issues are crucial for Ukraine and Russian opposition internee Alexei Navalny.

This summit was not bad for Mr. Biden and America, but it was not so good for Ukraine, and if there is a chance for democracy in Russia or Belarus, it was a non-factor. The question at this time is how Mr. Putin will use the experience from and knowledge gleaned at the summit to advance his authoritarian and imperialistic aims. Ukraine needs to take notice that America and Mr. Biden are its friend but not a guarantor of its sovereignty or territorial integrity, despite the pro forma language at Mr. Biden’s press conference. Lifelong politicians make many assertions. Very few except those closest to home are unequivocal and sincere. A vanilla Joe Biden is not going to guarantee Ukraine’s security with the United States or NATO forces.

The lesson from this summit is that allies and friends may help with military supplies and strong words, but Ukraine needs to step up and defend itself. May God bless Ukraine, once again on its own with many friends willing to offer verbiage but not tangible support. Is this history repeating itself? Unfortunately, yes! My appeal to my own country – the United States of America: you have to be a global leader. A free and democratic Ukraine in all aspects – geographically, militarily, intellectually – is the best deterrent to an aggressive Russia. Not only is Mr. Putin an assassin and a killer, but so, too, is Russia.

I only hope that Mr. Biden will react with substance.

Askold S. Lozynskyj is an attorney at law based in New York City who served as president of the Ukrainian World Congress in 1998-2008.