Biden, Putin Paper Over Splits as Both Claim Summit Wins

Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, left, and U.S. President Joe Biden, right, react at the start of the U.S. Russia summit at Villa La Grange in Geneva, Switzerland. (Photographer: Peter Klaunzer/Swiss Federal Office of Foreign Affairs/Bloomberg)

Biden, Putin Paper Over Splits as Both Claim Summit Wins

President Joe Biden said he wanted to meet Russia’s Vladimir Putin in Geneva to set some “rules of the road” in a relationship that has been eroding for years. After about three hours together, the two leaders showed how differently they interpreted that goal.

Putin got one thing he craved -- legitimacy on the international stage. Biden argued he confronted Putin over cyberattacks, Russia’s treatment of democracy activists and the need to cooperate over nuclear weapons and the Arctic.

But concrete accomplishments were hard to define, and both leaders were in vintage form. Shrugging off questions about human rights in Russia, Putin spent much of his post-summit news conference on Wednesday criticizing the U.S. over issues ranging from CIA black sites in the early 2000s to the January attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Biden, Putin Paper Over Splits as Both Claim Summit Wins

“What about Guantanamo -- it’s still working,” Putin said. “And it doesn’t come under any kind of law, international, American, nothing. CIA prisons which were opened in lots of states and exercised torture, was that human rights?”

Biden said he handed Putin a list of 16 types of critical infrastructure he said should be off limits from hacking -- even saying Russian officials were impressed by his argument against ransomware attacks like the one that shut down the Colonial Pipeline last month.

“I pointed out to him we have significant cyber capability, and he knows it,” Biden said. “He doesn’t know exactly what it is, but it’s significant. If in fact they violate these basic norms, we will respond.”

But the Kremlin said Putin merely reiterated that he thinks cyber attacks of all kinds are “unacceptable,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday. The U.S. didn’t accuse the Russian government of involvement, something the Kremlin sees as “quite positive,” he said.

Setting new red lines for Putin could mean another high-profile cyberattack traced to Russia would force a visible U.S. response that reversed any goodwill coming out of the summit.

But Biden said the meeting was an important opportunity to lay out the U.S. position face to face.

“I know there was a lot of hype around this meeting but for me it’s pretty straightforward,” Biden said. “This is about how we move from here,” he said, adding that the summit “was not done in a hyperbolic atmosphere.” Whether it will be successful, he said, “We’ll find out.”

Biden, Putin Paper Over Splits as Both Claim Summit Wins

Past high-level understandings have failed to yield concrete steps and it’s “very important” now to see which summit goals will be achievable, the Kremlin’s Peskov said.

There was never any expectation the meeting would solve the many problems between the U.S. and Russia. The U.S. wants Russia out of Crimea, to end interference in elections abroad, allow democratic debate at home and stop backing strongmen from Belarus to Venezuela. Putin -- whose popularity has fallen amid the Covid-19 crisis and quickening inflation -- wants an end to U.S. sanctions and, less tangibly, to reconfirm the sense that Russia is respected abroad.

On that last point, he got some of what he wanted from Biden, who called Russia a “great power” and a “proud” nation, an improvement from former President Barack Obama’s dismissive reference to Russia being a “regional power.”

The summit was seen as a success in Moscow, said Andrey Kortunov, head of the Kremlin-founded Russian International Affairs Council. “Putin got the recognition he wanted from Biden.”

But Biden also said he couldn’t pass up an opportunity to pressure Putin over human rights and cases such as that of imprisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny.

“How could I be the president of the United States of America and not speak about the violation of human rights,” Biden said. He said he made clear to Putin that if Navalny dies in prison, “the consequences of that would be devastating for Russia.”

Putin shrugged that off. He faulted the opposition leader for “knowingly” leaving Russia to seek medical treatment -- in fact, he was flown in a coma to Germany after a poisoning attempt that he and western governments blame on the Kremlin -- and also compared democracy protests led by Navalny to violence at some anti-racism demonstrations in the U.S. last year.

Ambassadors Returning

The most concrete announcement to come from the meeting was largely logistical: a decision for the two nations’ ambassadors to return to their posts in each other’s country.

The two leaders agreed to start a dialog on strategic stability, including on a successor to the New START nuclear treaty that expires in 2026. The sides will also discuss cyber-security in the months ahead as well as a possible prisoner exchange and restoring severed diplomatic ties.

While Putin and Biden were talking, Lithuania and Estonia reported that Russian fighter jets violated their airspace. Such things had happened in the past but it was a notable threat from Russia against two NATO members, coming the same week Biden met the alliance’s leaders in Brussels.

“We cannot want a better relationship with Russia than Russia wants with us,” said Tim Morrison, who served as Russia director under President Donald Trump. “The Biden administration wants to de-escalate tensions, it’s not clear to me Vladimir Putin does.”

Upbeat Mood

As the final news conferences wrapped up on a sunny evening, both leaders left the Swiss city upbeat. Putin praised Biden as a “very constructive, balanced person,” highlighting his experience as a politician. And he shared Biden’s assessment that the summit alone was a victory of sorts.

“To make the situation really predictable, we need to agree on the rules of the game,” Putin told reporters. “I think we can agree on all this.”

Biden and his aides came into the summit looking to tamp down talk about any dramatic improvement in U.S.-Russia ties. But by the end, he couldn’t resist the sort of hopeful thinking -- critics call it naïve -- that marked his predecessors’ Russia policy, saying there’s “a genuine prospect to significantly improve the relationship.”

“I did what I came to do,” Biden said. “It’s clearly not in anybody’s interest, your country’s or mine, for us to be in a situation where we’re in a new Cold War.”

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