(CNN)Joe Biden’s showdown with Russia’s Vladimir Putin on Wednesday is one of the most critical summits of recent times, and not just because relations between the two nations — which together own 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons — have plummeted to post-Cold War lows.
The Presidents will meet in Geneva on Wednesday for talks resonating with historic echoes of past Soviet-US confrontations. Their nations are at a strategic crossroads that if not properly navigated could erupt into a disastrous escalation on a new battlefield — in cyberspace.
The talks also represent a critical early political trial for Biden and exemplify the all-encompassing challenge facing a presidency anchored on a fight to preserve democracy, which is under siege at home and abroad.
After all, Putin’s core foreign policy goal is the fracturing of US political stability and prestige. He is accused of meddling in two elections to help ex-President Donald Trump — the top homegrown threat to US democracy.
Biden will hold the summit at a time when multiple factors are pushing US democracy to a breaking point: Trump’s false claims of voter fraud, Republican state efforts to make it harder to vote and easier to rig elections, and the GOP’s refusal to hold the former President to account for the Capitol Insurrection. The chaos, much of which was encouraged by Putin himself in misinformation operations targeting American politics, will play into the Russian leader’s conceit that the US is weakened, turning on itself and hardly a beacon for the world.
Biden united the West behind him before the talks
The talks, on neutral Swiss soil, are the culmination of Biden’s first foreign trip as President, which he used to reinvigorate European alliances battered by Trump and to invoke a new struggle by the West for its political values and future.
The United States finds itself between the remnants of the last Cold War with Moscow, which lacks the Soviet Union’s former power but retains the capacity to wreak havoc on US interests, and a building new superpower confrontation with China — another grave threat to the primacy of the West.
The buildup to the summit has meant that Biden’s entire tour — so far, a qualified success — will be judged on his clash with one of the most cunning global leaders, whose on-camera smirks underscore his outmaneuvering of past US presidents used to a more conventional geopolitical game.
The run-up to the summit has seen huge expectations-setting and robust exchanges between the leaders. Biden earlier this year agreed Putin was “a killer” and brands him an unrepentant autocrat. Putin has denied all knowledge of hacking and ransomware attacks against US government, private businesses and vital infrastructure that have been blamed on Russian intelligence agencies and criminal gangs. And with classic false equivalency, he has compared political prisoners like Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny — a victim of an apparent poisoning plot by the state — to Capitol insurrection suspects charged by US courts.
Biden’s opponents at home, in a narrative picked up by his traveling press pack, have been wondering why — given Russian belligerence and low US hopes for “deliverables” — the meeting is taking place at all.
Yet the greatest success of the summit may be what it stopped from happening, not what it achieves on Wednesday. Biden surprised many in Washington by suggesting the talks. But the invitation came at a time when Russian troops were massed on Ukraine’s border, with many observers fearing a full-scale invasion and with the imprisoned Navalny apparently close to death after being denied medical treatment.
The President’s carrot offered Putin a platform he craves alongside the US commander in chief that comes wi
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