U.S. President Joe Biden and Russia’s Vladimir Putin have opened their face-to-face talks Wednesday at a lush lakeside Swiss mansion, a highly anticipated summit at a time when both leaders agree that relations between their countries are at an all-time low.
The two sat down in a book-lined room in a somewhat awkward start to their meeting, with both appearing to avoid looking directly at each other during a brief photo opportunity before a scrum of reporters.
Their talks are expected to last four to five hours. Putin said he hoped they would be “productive,” while Biden told him “it is always better to meet face to face.” Biden appeared to suggest that he can take the Russian leader at his word, nodding his head when asked by a reporter if Putin can be trusted.
The two leaders did shake hands moments earlier when they posed with Swiss President Guy Parmelin, who welcomed them to Switzerland for the summit.
For months, they have traded sharp rhetoric. Biden has repeatedly called out Putin for malicious cyberattacks by Russian-based hackers on U.S. interests, a disregard for democracy with the jailing of Russia’s foremost opposition leader and interference in American elections.
Putin, for his part, has reacted with whatabout-isms and obfuscations — pointing to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol to argue that the U.S. has no business lecturing on democratic norms and insisting that the Russian government hasn’t been involved in any election interference or cyberattacks despite U.S. intelligence showing otherwise.
Now, the pair are meeting for the first time face-to-face as leaders. In advance, both sides set out to lower expectations.
Even so, Biden said it was an important step if the United States and Russia were able to ultimately find “stability and predictability” in their relationship, a seemingly modest goal from the president for dealing with the person he sees as one of America’s fiercest adversaries.
“We should decide where it’s in our mutual interest, in the interest of the world, to cooperate, and see if we can do that,” Biden told reporters earlier this week. “And the areas where we don’t agree, make it clear what the red lines are.”
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that no breakthroughs were expected and that “the situation is too difficult in Russian-American relations.””
“However, the fact that the two presidents agreed to meet and finally start to speak openly about the problems is already an achievement,” Peskov said several hours before the summit’s start.
Arrangements for the meeting were carefully choreographed and vigorously negotiated by both sides.
Biden first floated the meeting in an April phone call in which he informed Putin that he would be expelling several Russian diplomats and imposing sanctions against dozens of people and companies, part of an effort to hold the Kremlin accountable for interference in last year’s presidential election and the hacking of federal agencies.
Putin and his entourage arrived first at the summit site: Villa La Grange, a grand lakeside mansion set in Geneva’s biggest park. Next came Biden and his team. Putin landed in Geneva on Wednesday shortly before the scheduled start of the meeting; Biden — who was in Europe for a week of meeting with allies — arrived the day before.
The three spent a moment together in front of the cameras, but only Parmelin made remarks.
Biden and Putin were first holding a relatively intimate meeting joined by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Each side will have a translator.
The meeting will then expand to include five senior aides on each side.
After the meeting concludes, Putin is scheduled to hold a solo news conference, with Biden following suit. The White House opted against a joint news conference, deciding it did not want to appear to elevate Putin at a moment when the president is urging European allies to pressure Putin to cut out myriad provocations.
Biden sees himself with few peers on foreign policy. He traveled the globe as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and was given difficult foreign policy assignments by President Barack Obama when Biden was vice president. His portfolio included messy spots like Iraq and Ukraine and weighing the mettle of China’s Xi Jinping during his rise to power.
He has repeatedly said that he believes executing effective foreign policy comes from forming strong personal relations, and he has managed to find rapport with both the likes of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom Biden has labeled an “autocrat,” and conventional politicians like Canada’s Justin Trudeau.
But with Putin, who he has said has “no soul,” Biden has long been wary. At the same time, he acknowledges that Putin, who remained the most powerful figure in Russian politics over the span of five U.S. presidents, is not without talent. Biden this week suggested that he is approaching his meeting with Putin carefully.
“He’s bright. He’s tough,” Biden said. “And I have found that he is a — as they say...a worthy adversary.”
The White House held on to hope of finding small areas of agreement.
No commitments have been made, but according to the senior administration official, there are hopes that both sides will return their ambassadors to their respective postings following the meeting. Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Antonov, was recalled from Washington about three months ago after Biden called Putin a killer; U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan left Moscow almost two months ago, after Russia suggested he return to Washington for consultations.
Both ambassadors will be in Geneva during Wednesday’s meeting.
Biden administration officials say they think common ground can be found on arms control. International arms control groups are pressing the Russian and American leaders to start a push for new arms control by holding “strategic stability” talks — a series of government-to-government discussions meant to sort through the many areas of disagreement and tension on the national security front.
The Biden team will press its concerns on cybersecurity. In recent months, Russia-based hackers have launched alarming attacks on a major U.S. oil pipeline and a Brazil-headquartered meat supplier that operates in the U.S.
The Russian side has said that the imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is an internal political matter and one area where Putin won’t engage Biden. But the senior Biden administration official said there “is no issue that is off the table for the president,” suggesting Navalny will come up.
The meeting is sure to invite comparisons with President Donald Trump’s 2018 meeting with Putin in Helsinki, where the two leaders held a joint news conference and Trump sided with Russian denials when asked whether Moscow had meddled in the 2016 presidential election.
Biden has prepared for his one-on-one by reviewing materials and consulting with officials across government and with outside advisers. Aides said the level of preparation wasn’t unusual. Biden, in a brief exchange with reporters upon a rriving in Geneva on Tuesday night, sought to offer the impression that he wasn’t sweating his big meeting.
“I am always ready,” Biden said.