Biden and Putin Seek Detente in Summit After Rising Tensions

Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin kick off what could be more than four hours of meetings on Wednesday afternoon in Geneva, with officials from both countries keeping expectations low for any breakthrough agreement.

The meeting with Putin, the first of Biden’s presidency, is intended for the two leaders to set expectations in what’s become an adversarial relationship, and to take each other’s measure.

They’ll look to reach agreement on starting a new round of arms-control talks and perhaps on steps toward restoring diplomatic channels severed as relations plunged over the last several years.

The two men last met in 2011, when Biden, then vice president, told Putin not to run again after more than a decade at the helm in Russia. Since then, the U.S. has imposed round after round of sanctions in retaliation for acts including Russia’s annexation of Crimea, interference in U.S. elections, cyberattacks and the killings of opposition leaders and journalists.

Putin has been undeterred, remaining an obstacle to U.S. foreign policy in eastern Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere.

“I’m not looking for conflict with Russia,” Biden said at a news conference following a NATO summit on Monday. But he said he’ll convey to Putin that the U.S. will respond “if Russia continues these harmful activities. And we will not fail to defend the transatlantic alliance or stand up for democratic values.”

Biden and Putin Seek Detente in Summit After Rising Tensions

Putin and Biden will first meet accompanied only by their top diplomats, Sergei Lavrov and Antony Blinken. A larger meeting with more staff will follow. The initial face-to-face encounter of the two presidents will last as long as they want, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told state television Wednesday.

“Putin is always clear about laying out the ‘red lines’ for Russia and especially will be in the discussion today, which won’t be easy,” Peskov said, highlighting Biden’s suggestion that Ukraine might someday join NATO.

Biden and Putin Seek Detente in Summit After Rising Tensions

The leaders are expected to discuss a renewal of the New START nuclear arms pact that is set to expire in 2026, according to White House officials who briefed reporters traveling with Biden on Tuesday. The U.S. president believes human rights and Putin’s crackdown on jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s political movement are on the table for talks, though Putin has said they are internal issues.

The two leaders aren’t planning to share a meal. Ahead of the meeting, Biden dined Tuesday evening in Geneva with Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.

“I’m looking at this meeting with practical, but not much, optimism,” Putin foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov told reporters this week. “This is the first meeting under such strained conditions that have developed in bilateral relations, and I think that both sides understand they need to clean up the rubble.”

The summit is likely to yield “only limited progress in de-escalating U.S.-Russian tensions,” Alexander Vershbow, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia and deputy NATO secretary general, said in a Bloomberg TV interview.

They plan to hold separate news conferences after the summit rather than appearing on stage together, as Putin and former President Donald Trump did in Helsinki in 2018 -- a strong indication of how little expectation there is for any kind of breakthrough in the relationship.

Trump’s joint news conference with Putin in 2018 led to a U.S. embarrassment after he said he accepted the Russian leader’s word that he hadn’t interfered in the 2016 election, dismissing the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies. U.S. politicians in both parties excoriated Trump for the incident, which was seen as a major victory for Putin.

Biden has fended off criticism that he’s rewarding Putin by proposing a meeting so early in his presidency, with aides arguing the relationship is best managed face-to-face due to the Russian leader’s singular authority in his country. Nonetheless, the summit also represents a win for Putin, as it shows that however grudgingly, the Kremlin remains a priority for the new U.S. president.

The summit with Putin was purposefully scheduled to follow Biden’s meetings with Group of Seven nations in the U.K. as well as NATO and EU leaders in Brussels, where the U.S. president said he consulted allies on his agenda for the Russian leader. All of them, Biden said, thanked him for planning the Geneva meeting.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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