Dr Paul Vallet: Welcome to the Geneva Centre for Security Policy weekly podcast. I'm your host, Dr Paul Vallet, Associate Fellow in the Global Fellowship Initiative. For the next few weeks, I'm talking with subject matter experts to discuss issues of peace, security and international cooperation. Thanks for tuning in. Early last week, it was confirmed that the presidents of the United States and of the Russian Federation Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin will hold their first summit meeting since Biden's inauguration here in Geneva on June 16. This has been hailed in Switzerland as a new occasion for Geneva to play an important role in US-Russian relations, as it often has in the past. The current state of tension between the two powers and the many issues of global scale, which they need to discuss, especially on arms control and counter proliferation, also mean that the Geneva Summit will be closely watched by international observers. It is also worth recalling that the 1985 Summit held also in Geneva between Mikael Gorbachev for the USSR and Ronald Reagan for the United States, served as another epiphany for Swiss diplomacy, and was the origins of the launch of the International Training Course around which the GCSP itself would be formed a decade later. Our podcast will discuss this in a forthcoming edition. To discuss the importance of this forthcoming summit. I'm joined today by Ms Alexandra Matas, the Head of the Effective Governance cluster at the GCSP. Alexandra Matas, who is originally Russian, trained in both Public Relations and International Affairs at the Russian State University of Physical Education, Sports and Tourism and at the Geneva Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, and she joined the GCSP staff full time in 2011. She has coordinated the activities of the programmes on Security and Law and WMD and disarmament respectively. She's been a short course coordinator, and more recently, the course director in Effective Governance in either English or French language courses for state officials from different countries. She also designs dialogue events in Geneva and internationally on the topic of European Security, OSCE conflict prevention mechanisms, and post war reconstruction in Syria. Her research interests include the European security architecture, Russia and the post-Soviet states. She joins us in the midst of a busy agenda this week. So we're very fortunate to have her as a guest. Welcome to the podcast, Alexandra.
Ms Alexandra Matas: Thank you very much, Paul. It's a pleasure to be here.
Dr Paul Vallet: Well, my first question to you is whether the choice of Geneva as a venue for the first summit between presidents Biden and Putin is a surprising one.
Ms Alexandra Matas: Well, I don't think that the choice of Switzerland and particularly the neutral ground of Geneva is a surprising one. It shows a European country as a venue for the first face to face summit between the two presidents has been discussed since the first time the summit was proposed in April this year. Given that President Biden will be coming to Europe on the occasion of several summits with the Western Allies in the G7, NATO and the European Union. From the Russian side, the choice of Switzerland could also be expected as our country is historically neutral it's not a member to NATO, or the European Union. Since the times of the Cold War, Switzerland had a role to play among the conflicting parties. And International Geneva is known for hosting the multilateral institutions, and for providing safe and neutral platform for many important and sensitive diplomatic dialogues. Also, we can draw historical parallels as you just said with the well-known summit between the US President Ronald Reagan and the Soviet General Secretary Mikael Gorbachev held in Geneva in 1985. This meeting of the American and Soviet leaders is considered to be the major step towards the end of the confrontation between the two superpowers and the end of the Cold War. At that time, Geneva was already hosting the United Nations and other international organisations. However, the meeting was bilateral and not held under the UN umbrella. Switzerland was the only intermediary in this process. That event brought the world's attention to Geneva and raised its profile as the capital of global negotiations. Interestingly enough, the Reagan-Gorbachev summit exposed the pressing need to strengthen Swiss national expertise in the field of international security. And as you have rightly just said, Paul, this led to the creation of the GCSP oldest course the Leadership in International Security and we are celebrating its 35th anniversary in our centre these days.
Dr Paul Vallet: Yes, I thought it was good for us to return, obviously, to this history, which is most important for Geneva, and for our institution, the GCSP. And as you said, well, Geneva certainly does have a history of hosting, not just Russian-US bilateral meetings, but of course, many more. So my next question would be what are likely to be the principal issues on the agenda presented at this meeting, and are Russia's priorities since you may be able to talk about them a little bit more at length very different from those that are known to be that of the US?
Ms Alexandra Matas: That is true that the two countries have very diverging views on many issues. And we can even say that the relations between Russia and the United States today, are at the lowest level since the times of the Cold War. The election of President Biden last year did not change this negative dynamic that existed already for several years. That's the importance of such dialogue cannot be underestimated, as most of the disagreements come from mutual misperception and bad information. Paradoxically, during these difficult times, when diplomatic exchanges need to be intensified, the two countries almost stopped talking to each other. Even their respective Ambassadors are being temporarily withdrawn home for consultations. And the two sides are at odds over Russian influence in Ukraine and in Syria. There are claims and accusations over interference in American elections, a series of cyber attacks. Washington raises the issue of respect of human rights following jailing of opposition politician Alexey Navalny and the Kremlin does not accept interference in its internal affairs and expert of the so-called “Coloured Revolutions” to Russia and neighboring countries. Most recent tensions raised after Minsk, which is considered to beat Russia's ally diverted the Ryanair flight to arrest the dissident journalist. This issue will probably be addressed during the meeting. However, there are signals sent by the United States State Secretary Antony Blinken and the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, during their meeting two weeks ago in Reykjavik about the forthcoming summit, which are rather optimistic. The American side declared that it seeks a predictable and stable relationship with Russia and Moscow is ready to cooperate in spheres where their interests collide. The two countries indeed have successful experience of working together in in the past, for instance, when Russia provided its territory for transfer of NATO troops to Afghanistan, or when they were working together on the Iranian Nuclear Deal. Today, the areas of common interest could be fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, combating climate change, dealing with the nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, Afghanistan, or possible solutions to Israel-Palestinian dilemma. And those are likely to be the principal issues on the summit agenda. But the starting point of the discussion will be promoting dialogue on strategic stability. It was already made clear by both sides. And these discussions will certainly address the collapse of the arms control system. This is a burning issue of concern for the international community as a whole. And the status of relations between Moscow and Washington impact directly the international situation in general.
Dr Paul Vallet: Yes, well, as you said, often, the question of arms control between of course the two major holders of nuclear arsenals in the world has been a feature of their meetings in Geneva. And there's been also of course, a repeated will over the years to improve the general tone of discussion between the two powers. And of course, it was also in Geneva, I believe that Mr Blinken’s predecessorr Hillary Clinton that presented Minister Lavrov was this famous reset button that actually generated more of a joke than an actual reset of the times so we wish them better fortune this time. So of course, my next question would be, you know, whether there are very strong expectations of a reset starting from this meeting. And whether in particular, the choice of Geneva or Switzerland as policy of a good offices can help achieve that at this at this particular venue.
Ms Alexandra Matas: Both states can clearly benefit from the exchanges on such high level. On the one hand, in the context of intensified confrontation with China, it is in the United States interests to stabilise the relations with Russia. On the other hand for Moscow, the summit will reinforce the position of the Russian leadership as an indispensable player and a key partner in global politics. However, I don't think that our expectations should be too high. There is no possibility of a reset of relations at this point. And I'm not optimistic that any constructive results will be achieved. The confrontation between the United States and Russia will unfortunately remain, but the two leaders will aim to stabilise the situation. Coming to your second part of the question on if there are any issues that the choice of Geneva as a venue can help to address or Switzerland as a whole. We know that Geneva is a city of numerous international organisations, it hosts many summits important diplomatic negotiations. And in relation to this summit, the choice of Geneva could be specifically useful, as this is the principle multilateral platform for disarmament and arms control. As for Switzerland, it's good offices are a longstanding tradition and play a key role in the Swiss foreign policy. Switzerland acts as a mediator between conflicting parties in different parts of the world. For example, it is actively involved in finding a diplomatic solution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine. During Swiss chairmanship of the Organisation of Security and Cooperation Europe (OSCE) in 2014, Switzerland contributed to the creation of the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine and also supported the creation and functioning of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in this country. Switzerland also acts between the conflicting states who don't have diplomatic relations, for instance, that's the case or when it represents the US interests in Iran since 1980 or ensuring ties between Russia and Georgia after the 2008 war. Indeed, this longstanding experiences could be helpful in the current conflicting situation.
Dr Paul Vallet: Of course, a very, very good point to underscore all the know how that there is an initial International Geneva and also, of course, in in Switzerland's traditional policy. As we know, of course, the part of the Iranian Nuclear Deal, which was formally signed in Vienna was indeed negotiated in Switzerland. And, of course, many of the negotiating teams have very good contacts. So the theory in Switzerland, here was the confrontation of the meeting of the two leaders, we hope it doesn't turn into a confrontation because they both have quite strong characters. And they're well known for that. So I think that's an interrogation about a final question, which is, you know, whether there's a feeling that these in person summits, which have often at least generated a great deal of interest, and they've struck, also a lot of landmarks. And in the case of 1985, it's certainly you know, reinstated a dialogue that had been stagnant for the first part of the 1980s, between the USSR and the United States. And the results were verifiable, fairly quickly afterwards. But of course, here, we're also in a particular period in which in person summits had become also very infrequent because of sanitary restrictions. And we're in a way seeing with Joe Biden's visit to Europe, seeing also, of course, a return to the resumption of large, multilateral summits. And of course, the one here in Geneva is going to be a bilateral one. But is there a feeling that these are the summit's compared to a distance dialogue, not like the one that we're having, but between leaders, whether in person meeting still actually does make a difference in diplomatic terms compared to what to sort of the regular interaction that we would do online.
Ms Alexandra Matas: That is true Paul, that the pandemic change drastically, our habits and approaches in everyday life, but also in international exchanges. And many of track two and three dialogues were transferred to virtual space, we have experienced that also in our centre. And there are some benefits to that, for instance, the virtual dialogues are much more inclusive, we can reach the audience, which was often in the past, excluded from discussions. I talk here about participants from conflict zones, or representatives of non recognised territorial entities who didn't even have valid documents to travel abroad to participate in dialogues. However, virtual setting is much more challenging for high level discussions, where key messages are communicated during the informal exchanges during coffee breaks, or lunches or dinners in the informal setting, and that need to stay confidential in order to create confidence and trust between the interlocutors. And for this reason, I will agree with you that the opportunity to meet in person on the 16th of June will be crucial for the relations between the two states.
Dr Paul Vallet: Yes, well, I mean, obviously, in terms of distance meetings, we also know the direct line between the White House and the Kremlin goes back to 1963. So that's certainly something that's only been just improved eventually by video communication but has ensured a certain amount of dialogue. So we'll hope that of course this Geneva summit itself, does generate some of the effects through the in person meeting. So well, this will be all we have time for today. I wanted to thank you, Alexandra Matas for your many insights into this Geneva summit, which will be held on June 16. Next, so to our listeners, as well. Thank you for following us today. And we hope you will join us again next week to hear more about issues of peace, security and international cooperation. I remind you can follow us on Anchor FM and Apple iTunes and you can subscribe to us on Spotify and SoundCloud. I'm Dr Paul Vallet with the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and until next week, bye for now.
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