This week, Joe Biden speaks with European leaders for the first time as US president. How is the baptism of fire going in Europe for Biden, and is he ready for the meeting with the Russian president Vladimir Putin on Wednesday?

Biden’s European Tour is primarily a diplomatic attempt to strengthen ties with his European allies, after the relationship under Trump had become turbulent, to say the least.

The jovial Biden is “a relief” for many European leaders, as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson put it. It is a significant improvement for Europe compared to the rigid, unpredictable and sometimes outright hostile attitude that Trump often adopted during meetings.

While Trump openly questioned the usefulness of NATO during his term and demanded that European countries contribute more money, Biden stressed in Brussels in recent days how important the Treaty Organisation is for both the US and Europe. On Tuesday, Biden spoke with the leaders of the European Union in the Belgian capital about the coronavirus pandemic, climate change and security issues.

Biden is therefore emphatically looking for cooperation, but that does not mean that European leaders see the US again as a fully reliable ally in the longer term. It seems likely that Bidens Democrats will lose their thin parliamentary majorities in 2022. A return to a more authoritarian Republican president in 2024, either Trump or a spiritual successor, is far from ruled out.

Biden has to do with the Russian interference in the US presidential elections, the persecution of political opponents and journalists in Russia, and in mutual nuclear forces, and the so-called “conflicts of interest” in Syria, Ukraine, and Belarus, a lot of apples to pick with president Putin. Above all, however, it is about the relationship between the two great powers and traditional arch rivals, which according to Putin is worse than he has been in years.

When Biden and Putin meet in Geneva on Wednesday, it is the first time an American president has spoken to his Russian counterpart since Donald Trump and Putin met in Helsinki in July 2018.

The meeting in the Finnish capital was regarded by many Americans as a debacle, in which Trump let himself be wrapped up in Putin. In the closing joint press conference, Trump seemed to side with Putin on many points, contrary to the reading of his own advisors.

For example, Trump claimed to believe that the Russians did not interfere in the US presidential election in 2016, although U.S. intelligence services had concluded in several reports that they did -and later didn’t. After a storm of criticism in his own country, Trump claimed a day later that his words had been misunderstood. However, it was enough to give the impression that Putin had ‘won’ the meeting.

Trump also made his voice heard in the run-up to the meeting between Biden and Putin, calling on Biden “not to fall asleep” during the conversation. The former president referred to his regular nickname for Biden: “Sleepy Joe”, which he wants to dismiss the Democrat as a low-paying, low-energy person.

This is partly why Biden was a lot more reluctant about Putin on Monday than in March, when in an interview he called the Russian president a “murderer” because of his alleged involvement in the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. This time he called Putin a “worthy opponent”.

However, the US president warned that the relationship with Russia might be irreparably damaged if Navalny dies in the prison camp where he is currently serving a 2.5-year sentence for fraud.

Putin himself now realizes that he is facing a less impulsive US president than Trump, who is therefore more difficult to manipulate and will be significantly less conciliatory. The Russian state leader already started the fire last week by saying that Biden is “radically different” from the “colourful and extremely talented” Trump. He also stated that he could not guarantee that Navalny would survive the prison camp.

Russia is allowed to engage in international affairs on a regular basis, but for the Biden government it is not the top foreign priority. That’s China. Under the impetus of the Americans, NATO announced this week that the Asian giant represents the greatest “systematic threat” to the alliance.

Expectations for the meeting between Biden and Putin in Geneva are therefore low. For the US president, it will mainly serve to show the allies that Trump’s ‘America first’ strategy is a thing of the past. His Russian opponent will use the meeting above all to underline that Russia is still a great power, belonging to the international negotiating tables.

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