Why was US president Joe Biden meeting Russian leader Vladimir Putin at a countryside retreat in Switzerland last week?
Official accounts say that the two discussed the recent wave of alleged Russian cyberattacks on US institutions.
On the agenda was also Russia’s military build-up in Ukraine and the case of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny.
But the real reason why Biden arranged to meet Putin was not even an item for discussion at the summit—the US’s amplifying tensions with China.
The ransomware attacks are certainly an irritation to Biden. Earlier this month the world’s biggest meatpacker was allegedly targeted by Russian cyber criminals.
In May, the largest fuel pipeline in the US was attacked. These have stoked fear over disruption to food and fuel supplies.
The White House says that hacker assaults on the energy sector could potentially shut down the US power grid.
Biden is said to have laid down “red lines” on the issue. He told Putin that the US would retaliate in kind if the attacks were from Russia, and continued.
But on the two other items on the agenda—Ukraine and Navalny—Biden is fairly relaxed.
Since the meeting between the two leaders was announced earlier this year, Putin has withdrawn some of his troops on the border.
And though Navalny remains in prison, he is no longer on the brink of death.
But Biden’s recent tour of Europe, including the G7 and Nato summits, had a specific purpose. It’s to shore up the US’s allies for a tough approach to the economic and military growth of China.
Three days before the G7, the US announced it would approve a trade agreement with Taiwan. This was designed to provoke China, which lays claim to the territory.
A day later the US Senate passed a £176 billion package of legislation to combat China’s technological growth.
All of this makes clear that Biden sees Russia as a relatively minor threat compared to China.
“I think that the reality of the Chinese relationship, Chinese influence and power, and the difficulty in aligning other countries in the world with the US on China means that we’d rather not have big problems on the Russian front,” said Time magazine’s Ian Bremmer.
But there are ways in which the Russian threat to the US could escalate.
Since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia and China have looked to strengthen ties. Western economic sanctions made this even more important to Putin.
The Russian economy is stagnating, people’s living standards are falling and there are signs of growing discontent that may come to the boil.
Putin hopes that by forging a closer relationship with China he may be able to grab some of the country’s economic vitality.
New fuel pipelines to China are being built, and Russia is offering to share some of its more advanced military hardware with China.
Biden’s offer of a summit was an attempt to pull that process back.
“I think Biden’s decision to meet with Putin certainly has created anxiety on the part of China, which I think it’s a smart move by him,” said Yawei Liu, a China expert with the Carter Center think tank.
For Putin, the summit was a success before it happened. He got the chance to be seen as the spokesman for a “world superpower”, rather than the leader of a “rogue state”.
But the White House is playing a far wider game. Biden is readying his forces for conflict with China.
At the moment that conflict is largely economic.
But the history of imperialism shows us how this type of competition can so easily turn to other, more deadly forms.
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