- President Joe Biden and President Vladimir Putin are expected to talk for four to five hours.
- Biden has tried to lower expectations for the meeting . He isn’t expecting many deliverables.
- Putin has met five U.S. presidents since coming to power in 1999.
- Biden has described Putin as “a worthy adversary.”
President Joe Biden struck a firm but mostly conciliatory tone Wednesday as he described talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit in Geneva, but he also made clear the two nations remained a world apart on issues including cyber espionage and human rights.
“The bottom line is I told President Putin that we need to have some basic rules of the road that we can all abide by,” Biden told reporters after his meeting with Russia’s leader in Switzerland. It lasted three hours.
The two men called the meeting, their first since Biden took office, to discuss a range of issues that have plagued U.S.-Russia relations for months, if not years: cyberattacks, Moscow’s increasingly brazen crack down on democracy supporters, and Russia’s threat to the NATO military alliance that has long been a bedrock of the U.S.’s security relationship with European allies.
“It was important to meet in person so there could be no mistake about or misrepresentations about what I wanted to communicate,” Biden said. “I did what I came to do.”
The summit was held at Villa La Grange, an impressive 18th-century villa that overlooks Lake Geneva. Biden and Putin met 36 years after former President Ronald Reagan and then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev held talks at a separate well-appointed villa in Geneva as Washington and Moscow sought a thaw in Cold War-era relations.
Just before Biden’s remarks, in an apparent sign the U.S. and Russia are looking for concrete ways to ease tensions, Putin told reporters the two nations agreed to return their ambassadors to their posts in Washington and Moscow. For months, no senior diplomat has been posted in either country.
Putin said there was “no hostility” between the two delegations. He described the meetings as “constructive” on some issues.
He said, for example, that he and Biden reached an agreement the two countries would start negotiations on changes to the new START arms control treaty, the last remaining nuclear arms deal between Moscow and Washington. Russia’s president also said the the two countries will begin consultations on cybersecurity but denied any responsibility for the a recent spate of ransomware attacks on U.S. institutions. The U.S. has said Russian intelligence was behind last year’s “SolarWinds” hack that penetrated 18,000 public and private organizations, one of the worst cyberattacks in world history.
Putin, who has now met five U.S. presidents since coming to power in 1999, did not elaborate, but Biden did.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Biden said he gave Putin a list of 16 critical infrastructures in the U.S. that “should be off limits to attack.” Asked if he laid out clearly what the penalty would be for future cyber attacks, the president said he pointed out the U.S. has “significant cyber capability.”
“If in fact they violate these basic norms, we will respond,” he said.
Max Abrahms, a professor of political science and public policy at Northeastern University, said Putin’s remarks about both countries being “committed to discussions” about cybersecurity were a positive signal.
“Cyber is here to stay. It will increasingly be used as a tool of warfare. If someone retrospectively creates a timeline of U.S.-Russia relations in the cybersphere this summit could become a data point on that timeline,” he said.
“Especially if NATO countries are going to start invoking Article 5 (where an attack on a single NATO member is considered an attack on all) – that’s really something that needs to be talked about with Putin.”
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Asked about jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, long a thorn in the Kremlin’s side, Putin argued Navalny knew he was a wanted criminal in Russia “but nevertheless he came back, and he deliberately wanted to be arrested.”
Navalny, one of Putin’s staunchest critics, was detained in January upon his arrival from Germany, where he was treated for poisoning from a Russian military-grade nerve agent. Russian authorities have denied they were behind the attack. Navalny was sentenced to two and half years in February after a court ruled he violated terms of a suspended jail term, even though he was in a coma.
Putin sought to draw an equivalence – a false one, Biden said – between his country’s treatment of democracy activists in Russia, and rioters at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
“People went to the U.S. Congress with political demands. Now they are facing criminal charges. They are called homegrown terrorists,” he said.
“Everything that happens in our respective countries, one way or another, it is the responsibility of the leaders themselves. You just have to look at the streets of America and every single day there are killings,” Putin added.
The two foreign leaders were joined Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov for the first session before they broke into a larger group including officials from both countries.
Biden opened the summit by describing the U.S. and Russia as “two great powers,” marking an effective promotion of Moscow’s status on the world stage.
The U.S. has previously sought to avoid elevating Moscow’s global role. Former President Barack Obama only acknowledged Russia as a “regional power” after it invaded and annexed Crimea, part of Ukraine, in 2014.
“I think Putin got almost everything he wanted out of this summit,” said Arkady Dubnov, a Russian political analyst, after listening to Putin’s news conference and noting that Putin’s chief aim is to have Russia viewed on the world stage as the superpower it once was.
The U.S. president spent the days in the lead-up to the summit meeting with dozens of foreign leaders at the Group of Seven and NATO meetings in Britain and Brussels, Belgium, as he sought to restore transatlantic diplomatic ties unwound by his predecessor’s nationalist policies.
Former President Donald Trump stirred controversy when he defended Russia against allegations of 2016 election interference at a meeting with Putin in Helsinki in July 2019.
Christopher Painter, who served in the White House under the Obama administration as the first senior director for cyber policy, said he there was a real chance that after the summit Putin goes back to his old ways of tacit and explicit support for cyberattacks on the U.S.
“There wasn’t much acknowledgment from Russia that it, or even criminal groups in Russia, are doing these things. He kind of rejected that, and that’s not really a basis for cooperation. Although, I didn’t expect him to say ‘You got me.'”
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