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So exactly why did Putin meet Biden, anyway?
So, Geneva went more or less the way I expected it to: Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin shook hands, exchanged unpleasantries, agreed to have their people get in touch with their other people, and moved on. In other words, the summit was a resounding success.
But seriously, what was the point?
On the genuine diplomatic front, there were some genuine wins:
The Russian and American ambassadors are headed back to Washington and Moscow, respectively, which is where they belong;
Anthony Blinken and Sergei Lavrov have a mandate to map out an agenda for strategic arms control, which is likewise where they belong;
Biden headed home without an obvious agenda for new sanctions, which makes Putin happy; and
Putin headed home without any obvious fodder for maligning Biden, about which Biden cares very little, but hey, it’s nice.
But as great as all of that is — and moving the Doomsday Clock a few seconds away from midnight is truly a great thing — was that really worth Putin having his lunch handed to him by ABC’s Rachel Scott?
According to Leonid Volkov — exiled campaign manager for jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny — all Putin really wanted was to get his picture taken with Biden. He wrote (in Russian):
He’s not planning to negotiate about anything. He’s not planning to sign any agreements. He’s going, in essence, for a single photo, exactly the same way fanboys dream of getting a selfie with their idol. And then that photo will be bandied about by the [Kremlin propagandists], and for the next three months, all we’ll hear is, “Look at our guy! How great is he? Even that other guy talked with him like an equal!”
Indeed, Financial Times correspondent Henry Foy wrote more or less the same thing way back in April, when Biden first mooted the idea of a meeting:
Hours after his defence minister on Tuesday admitted Russia had mobilised two armies and three paratroop divisions to positions close to the conflict-wracked frontier, US President Joe Biden phoned the Kremlin with an offer of a bilateral summit: a long sought-after prize for Putin who craves a seat at the world’s highest negotiating table.
All of which got me wondering, is there anything to this idea? Is it really possible that Putin wants to meet Biden just for a ratings boost? The only person who really knows the answer to that question is Putin, and, as usual, he’s ghosting me in his DMs, so I’ve had to do a bit of back-of-the-envelope research. In a nutshell: it’s not a totally crazy idea.
Between the time Boris Yeltsin departed the Kremlin on 31 December 1999 and Putin’s trip to Geneva this week, there have been, by my count, 21 US-Russia presidential meetings — a few of them full-blown summits, many of them state visits, and the rest extended discussions on the margins of other events. A number of them, of course, involved Dmitry Medvedev, who tried valiantly to be Russia’s president from 2008 to 2012 but ultimately failed. Looking at data from the Levada Center, the only Russian polling agency that really matters, I compared the Russian president’s approval ratings three months after each of these summits with the average approval rating for the six months prior to the summit, and the picture looks decidedly mixed:
Taken together, US-Russian top-level ‘bilats’ have given the Russian president more headaches than warm fuzzies — yielding a ratings drop of 0.03% immediately after the summit and of -0.85% three months later, although a modest bump of 0.34% six months later — but these numbers should emphatically not be taken together. For one thing, the data includes a few major outliers, including:
The April 2008 Putin-Bush meeting in Moscow, which immediately preceded Medvedev’s inauguration, leading to a massive drop in approval for the Russian president;
The September 2013 Putin-Obama meeting in St. Petersburg, which was followed six months later by the annexation of Crimea and Putin’s biggest ever ratings bonanza; and
The July 2018 Putin-Trump meeting in Helsinki, which, apart from being so weird that Fiona Hill almost faked death to make it stop, was followed in short order by a sharp decline in Putin’s fortunes, for reasons Graeme Robertson and I have described elsewhere.
Minus those outliers, the average summit produced a ratings increase of nearly 1% right off the bat, and almost 2% six months down the road — and positive bounces resulted from more than half of all summits. Remove Medvedev from the numbers, and things get even better: summits involving Putin (and minus the outliers) yielded an average of 1% immediately, nearly 2% three months later, and nearly 3% six months on.
In truth, none of this should have been surprising. Political scientists studying the US have noted the ability of summits and other foreign policy set-piece events to boost the ratings of American presidents since the late 1970s.1 And we’ve known about the importance of foreign policy success to the approval ratings of Russian presidents — including both Yeltsin and Putin — since at least 2011.2 We also have plenty of social science to show that Russian citizens are more likely to respond uncritically to news about foreign policy than to news about what’s going on domestically, reinforcing analytically what Volkov — and, I suspect, Putin — know intuitively.3 And yet I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen anyone draw together the numbers on summits and approval ratings before, so I thought it might be useful to give it a go. (To be sure, the analysis here is simplistic in the extreme. Someone with more time, or more research assistants, is welcome to dive deeper! Ping me for the data, if you want them.)
Does that mean Putin really went to Geneva just to get his picture taken? Of course not. Nothing big and important only happens for only one reason, and US-Russia summits are, by any measure, big and important. But did the Kremlin have reason to believe that a picture with Biden might help boost their man and his party in the upcoming elections? Certainly — and now, so do you.