When President Biden meets Vladimir Putin in Geneva tomorrow, he’s unlikely to side with the Russian tyrant as Donald Trump did in 2018, says Shay Khatiri in The Bulwark. All the same, he needs to tread carefully when going against “a former KGB colonel with a broken soul”. Facing down soulless autocrats in person is a dangerous business. At the Yalta summit in 1945, Churchill and Roosevelt “ceded half of Europe to half a century of Soviet oppression” because they took Stalin’s word that he would withdraw his forces at the end of the war. Sixteen years later, JFK underestimated the former “revolutionary peasant” Nikita Khrushchev at their Vienna summit, admitting that the wily Soviet premier “beat the shit out of me” to get his agreement on partitioning Berlin – which led to the construction of the Wall. The shining exception is Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev’s meeting in 1986: they got along famously and agreed an important nuclear weapons treaty (but not before Reagan called the Soviets’ bluff by walking out on the talks).
Biden must beware when he and Putin come face to face. A country can always back out of a dodgy decision made by low-level diplomats, but no one can overrule a president who makes a bold commitment in the moment – “even if the president himself comes to regret it”. Should nothing come of Wednesday’s tête-à-tête, “it will have been a ringing success.”
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