MBS and Putin: Why Talk to One and Not the Other?

Photograph Source: Kremlin.ru – CC BY 4.0

President Biden is confronted with two decisions: The first is whether to go to Saudi Arabia this summer to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) to try to persuade him to increase his country’s oil output. The second is whether to speak directly with Vladimir Putin to try to end the war in Ukraine. Neither outreach is a form of recognition; it is a necessity for much larger considerations.

The argument for a visit to Saudi Arabia is obvious. With oil prices rising, growing inflation and mid-term elections in November, it is imperative for Biden and the Democrats to increase the world’s oil production so that supply can respond to demand and decrease the price at the pump. The assumption behind the visit is that if Saudi Arabia increases its oil output, the world’s supply will increase, prices will go down, inflation will be lowered, and the Democrats will have a better chance in November’s elections.

The arguments against the visit are also obvious. “Meeting Mohammed bin Salman without human rights commitments would vindicate Saudi leaders who believe there are no consequences for egregious rights violations,” said a Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. Biden had said during his 2020 campaign that he would seek to make Saudi Arabia “the pariah that they are”.  He specified that there is “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.”

The link between the Crown Prince and the murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, has been documented, as have war crimes committed by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Besides the human rights argument, there are no guarantees that increased oil production by Saudi Arabia or other members of OPEC will reduce gas prices and slow inflation.

 Asked about the upcoming trip despite Saudi Arabia’s dismal human rights record, Biden replied in terms of his overall strategy to bring peace to the Middle East: “I’m not going to change my view on human rights, but as president of the United States, my job is to bring peace if I can. And that’s what I’m going to try to do.”

White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, repeated Biden’s peace argument. She said: President Biden “is focused on getting things done for the American people. If he determines that it’s in the interest of the US to engage with a foreign leader and that such an engagement can deliver results, then he’ll do so. There’s no question that important interests are interwoven with Saudi Arabia,” she added. “And the president views the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as an important partner on a host of initiatives that we are working on, both in the region and around the world.”

The administration’s argument for a Biden-MBS meeting is that it is in the greatest interest for Middle East peace and peace “around the world” that the two should talk. Overall peace as well as increased oil production override the horrendous human rights record of the Saudi leader, according to the Biden team.

If “pariah” was the term Biden used to describe MBS during his campaign and then changed his mind, what about the president’s views on Vladimir Putin? If the Biden team sees meeting MBS face-to-face as a positive step to increase oil production and reduce tensions in the Middle East, surely there is a more pressing need to have another Biden-Putin summit to stop the carnage in Ukraine and increase grain delivery. But the last and only summit between the two, in Geneva on June 16, 2022, led to no concrete results. On the contrary; eight months later Russian troops invaded Ukraine. Putin was obviously not impressed enough with Biden to alter his plans for attacking Ukraine. For the moment, no mention is being made of a follow-up meeting.

If Biden can’t talk to Putin, who can? The most promising candidate is French President Emmanuel Macron. According to reports, Macron has had a hundred hours of telephone conversations with the Russian president since December. To what avail? While the conversations may have solidified Macron’s self-image as a big league international leader, the war continues to rage in Ukraine.

So President Biden is planning to meet MBS in the interest of Middle East peace and peace “around the world,” but no mention is being made of a follow-up to the Geneva summit in the interest of peace in Ukraine. Biden is also to meet MBS for increased oil supplies but he is not willing to meet Putin for increased grain. The problems of peace and oil override (I avoid the use of trump even with a small t) human rights violations while a direct discussion with Putin for peace and grain has no possibility.

The fundamental question is the value of talking. Any proposal to have Biden meet again with Putin brings back memories of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain 1938 talks with Hitler. The appeasement agreed upon in Munich had no positive effect in stopping World War II. Macron is being criticized along these lines. Biden would certainly be rebuked for even proposing a second summit.

For the Biden team, talking to MBS is acceptable; talking to Putin is not. Is the fact that Putin’s human rights violations are more egregious the logic behind this? Wouldn’t the evidence that the situation in Ukraine is more humanely destructive than the price of oil or eventual slim progress in Middle East peace be reason enough to try to discuss?

The Biden team will argue that they see no positive results from negotiating with Putin. The failure of the Geneva summit will be their point of reference, as will be the failed attempts by Macron through telephone conversations with Putin. For the moment, only autocrats like Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus have been convenors of major peace negotiations.

The planned trip of President Biden to meet MBS raises serious questions about the criteria for deciding to whom to talk to. If “to jaw-jaw is always better than war-war,” according to Churchill, then some form of Biden outreach to Russia should be in the cards. If speaking to a human rights violator like MBS is deemed acceptable because it is in some general interest, speaking to directly to Vladimir Putin follows that logic.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.