All eyes on high stakes summit between Biden and Putin

Both Russia and the US seem to be raising the importance they give to nuclear weapons in their military strategies
Both Russia and the US seem to be raising the importance they give to nuclear weapons in their military strategies Dimitar DILKOFF AFP/File

US President Joe Biden will meet with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Geneva on Wednesday. This is the first US-Russia summit since Biden took office – and it comes after he met with his most trusted allies at three recent get-togethers: the G7, a Nato summit, and a meeting with EU leaders. Between them, the US and Russia possess 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons. 


"These last years have seen a deterioration in relations between the two countries," Beatrice Finh, head of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (Ican) told RFI.

"Lots of withdrawal from arms control agreements, hostile rhetoric, they both have been modernising and upgrading their nuclear arsenals," she says.

In 2018, the Trump administration withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty banning US and Russian land-based ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and missile launchers with ranges between 500 and 1,000 kilometres. Putin followed suit and withdrew in 2019. 

But Finh is hoping for a turning point in the relationship, "a kind of a commitment to start working on nuclear arms reductions". A hopeful sign was that Biden and Putin signed the extension of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty ("New Start" Treaty) at the beginning of February, just days before it was due to expire. 

We have been very lucky so far for 75 years, there hasn't been a huge mistake happening or a leader that wants to use them. But that's not going to last forever.

PODCAST: Beatrice Finh - Director International Campaign Against Nuclear weapons

The US and Russia hold about 90 percent of the world's nuclear arsenal. The "New Start" treaty caps numbers at around 1500 deployed nuclear warheads each.

But that's far from safe, says Finh. "We've seen modernisation programs that are looking at new ways of using nuclear weapons, new types of missiles,  and increasing the role of nuclear weapons and the security doctrines," she says. 

World nuclear arsenal by country according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri)
World nuclear arsenal by country according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri) © Sipri 2020 yearbook

Added to that, "emerging technologies, hacking, cyberattacks, artificial intelligence, new missile technology, this can really very quickly escalate a situation and create very complex scenarios where we don't really know what could happen."

Finh compares the risk of a nuclear war on par with the threat during the cold war and the Cuban missile crisis. In its latest report Complicit: 2020 global nuclear weapons spending, Ican estimates that the world's nine nuclear powers spent $72,6 billion on nuclear weapons. "We really need to reverse this trend," says Finh. 

Cyber attacks

"We need Russia and the US to start negotiating and show that they are willing to do something more than just simply sitting and waiting," and by doing so encouraging other nuclear powers to follow the example. 

But nukes won't be the only item on the table when Putin and Biden meet. 

In the run-up to the summit, Biden faced increasing pressure to condemn Putin and the Russian government for their part in suspected rounds of cyberattacks, linked to Russian nationals and targeting critical parts of American infrastructure, including a major gasoline pipeline.

After a round of such attacks in April, the Biden administration issued sanctions against more than a dozen Russian individuals and entities accused of election interference. At the same time, Biden signed an executive order enabling the US to sanction parts of Russia’s economy at its own discretion.

Worthy adversary

But days before the summit, Biden declined to condemn Putin or detail specific goals ahead of the summit.

“The last thing I want to do is negotiate in front of the world press as I approach a critical meeting with an adversary and/or someone who could be an adversary,” he said during a press conference. 

Biden, who for years painted Putin as an "aggressor" and a "dictator," used more moderate words when describing the Russian leader in Brussels on Monday evening.

“He’s bright, he’s tough, and I have found that he is — as they say when I used to play ball — a ‘worthy adversary’.”

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Keep up to date with international news by downloading the RFI app