A “killer” with “no soul” whose government is “paranoid”.
That is how US President Joe Biden has previously described his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
Over the past decade, Putin has become one of the most irritating thorns in the White House’s side.
The Kremlin has irked and aggravated the United States with, according to Washington, a threat to invade Ukraine, an arms buildup, hacker attacks and election meddling.
On Wednesday, Putin and Biden are meeting again in Geneva for their first summit amid frayed ties, the West’s growing pressure on Moscow and Russia’s widening crackdown on domestic dissent.
But although Putin is known for salty language and harsh responses to barbs, he prefers to talk about Biden with cautious, nearly flattering optimism.
“Over my tenure, I’ve gotten used to attacks from all kinds of angles and from all kinds of areas under all kinds of pretext,” he said with a laugh on Friday, answering an NBC correspondent’s question about being a “killer”.
A week earlier, Putin said that Biden “is an experienced man, I hope, very balanced, very accurate. I very much hope that our meeting will be in a positive key”.
Like Biden, Putin, who has met with four US presidents since 1999, also keeps his expectations from the summit low.
“I don’t expect any breakthroughs in Russian-US ties, nothing that will dumbfound us all with results,” he said.
Ukraine is by far the biggest bone of contention.
In March and early April, Putin amassed tens of thousands of troops in annexed Crimea and along Russia’s border with Ukraine and its two pro-Russian separatist regions.
For a while, a war seemed imminent – until Biden called Putin on April 13 telling him to de-escalate the tensions and offering to meet in Geneva in an apparent nod to the Russian leader.
Biden knows Ukraine better than other US presidents in history – he visited the ex-Soviet nation six times and joked he spent more time on the phone with then-President Petro Poroshenko than with his wife.
“Biden’s meeting with Putin will solve only one question – how not to allow a real war,” Gennady Gudkov, a former Russian lawmaker-turned opposition leader, told Al Jazeera.
However, Alexey Mukhin, who heads the Moscow-based Center for Political Information, maintains that Biden will avoid discussing Ukraine because of his son Hunter’s sinecure job at a Ukrainian energy company that triggered ex-President Donald Trump’s pressure on Kyiv and, in turn, resulted in Trump’s first impeachment.
“Joe Biden will not push the Ukrainian topic because of certain corruption circumstances related to his son,” Mukhin told Al Jazeera.
From the North Pole to Damascus
Mukhin thinks that two far-flung locations – the Artic and Syria – will dominate the talks as possible areas of cooperation.
In the next two years, Moscow is holding the rotating presidency of the Arctic Council of nations that border the region where melting ice opens up new sea routes that may compete with the Suez Canal and the Malacca Straits.
Western sanctions over Crimea included a ban on the export of offshore drilling technologies Russia needs to get its share of the Arctic Bonanza that contains up to 90 billion barrels of oil and natural gas deposits, which exceed Qatar’s proven reserves.
Meanwhile, Moscow is ramping up its military presence in the Arctic despite the six-month-long nights and nine-month-long winters because the region provides the shortest way for ballistic missiles from Russia to North America – or the other way around.
“We have concerns about some of the recent military activities in the Arctic,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in mid-May.
Regarding Syria, Moscow stunned the world with its military intervention to save President Bashar Assad, and Washington understands that only cooperation with Moscow will help resolve the conflict.
Some analysts are positive that Putin will sacrifice Assad if the West guarantees not to encroach on Moscow’s renewed clout in the war-torn nation.
“Russia will likely accept sacrificing Assad’s presidency, but only in return for maintaining a degree of influence for itself in Syria,” Lina Khatib, director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine on June 9.
However, one of Russia’s most knowledgeable experts on the Middle East disagrees.
“Who will benefit from a discussion [on the region]? This is not a major, but a secondary matter,” Moscow-based Alexey Malashenko told Al Jazeera.
Putin’s foreign minister echoes his boss’s low expectations of the summit – and uses a metaphor to describe the possibility of restoring bilateral ties.
“It takes two to tango. But if someone is breakdancing, things will be more complicated,” Sergey Lavrov told a youth conference on June 9.
Lavrov mentioned one of the cornerstones of global nuclear arms control architecture that Moscow and Washington maintained for decades – and that could offer a renewal of cooperation.
The Kremlin has long been worried about NATO’s Aegis Ashore missile defence system in Romania and Poland, Russia’s Soviet-era satellites.
The US claims the system is designed to prevent a nuclear threat from Iran, but Moscow believes that the system may be upgraded to shoot long-range Tomahawk missiles at Russia.
Moscow is eager to conduct regular checks of the Aegis Ashore facilities and will let NATO inspect its short-range Iskander missiles in Russia’s westernmost Baltic region of Kaliningrad.
“We invite you to visit the Kaliningrad region and see the Iskanders, and in return want our experts to visit missile defense bases that are being created in Romania and Poland,” Lavrov said.
But experts say the demand is nothing but a king-of-the-hill game to boost Moscow’s prestige.
“This is a direct way to what Russia has been unsuccessfully striving for since the 1990s – the status of a guarantor of Europe’s security, equal to the US,” Pavel Luzin, a Russia-based analyst with the Jamestown Foundation, a think tank in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera.
He said Biden is very unlikely to allow the inspections – but may promise not to install the Tomahawks, which is technically impossible to begin with.
“There may be a bit of an exchange of declarations to present at least something positive during the summit,” Luzin said.
First published on: Al Jazeera