Biden, Putin paper over splits as both claim victories
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 criticising the US over issues ranging from CIA black sites in the early 2000s to the January attack on the US Capitol.
“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.”
Setting new red lines for Putin could mean that another high-profile cyberattack traced to Russia would force a visible US response that could reverse any goodwill coming out of the summit.
But Biden said the meeting was an important opportunity to lay out the US 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.”
There was never any expectation that the meeting in Geneva would solve the many problems between the US and Russia. The US 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. “That’s why we’re going to raise our concerns about cases like Alexey Navalny.”
Biden 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 seeking medical treatment abroad -- after he was poisoned, allegedly by state security services -- and compared democracy protests led by Navalny to violence at some anti-racism demonstrations in the US last year, saying he didn’t want Black Lives Matter-type disturbances brought to his country.
He also gently warned Biden that new sanctions would lead to “another missed opportunity” for the US.
The most concrete announcement to come from the meeting was largely logistical: a decision for the two nations’ ambassadors to return to their countries. Even that was complicated, because while Russia had called Ambassador Anatoly Antonov back after the U.S. imposed a new round of sanctions, US officials had long said Ambassador John Sullivan -- a Trump administration holdover -- would be returning to Moscow after spending some time with family.
The two leaders also agreed to start a dialog on strategic stability, including plans to replace the New START nuclear pact with a stronger deal when it expires in 2026. Putin also praised Biden’s support of the Minsk agreement to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
The meeting was heavy with symbolism. The last time the U.S. and Russian leaders met in a summit setting was 2018 in Helsinki, when President Donald Trump was in office. That gathering became known for its post-summit press conference in which the American president backed Russian intelligence over his own spy agencies when it came to Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election, a move that sparked bipartisan controversy back in Washington.
The symbolism couldn’t mask the geopolitics at stake. 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 the 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. And I fear that since we are continuing to deal with the same leader of Russia, Vladimir Putin, that’s precisely the risk we’re running,” said Tim Morrison, who served as Russia director in the Trump White House. “The Biden administration wants to de-escalate tensions, it’s not clear to me Vladimir Putin does.”
As the final news conferences wrapped up on a sunny evening in Geneva, 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 after the talks. “I think we can agree on all this. At least that’s the impression I got from my meeting with President Biden.”
Biden and his aides came into the summit looking to tamp down talk about any dramatic improvement in US-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.”
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.