Short and sweet: Biden and Putin claim summit gains but talks end early as tensions remain

Talks between the US and Russian leaders were ‘fruitful’ – but differences remain

Oliver Carroll
In Geneva
Wednesday 16 June 2021 22:13
<p>Russia’s president Vladimir Putin (left) and US president Joe Biden reaching out to shake hands before their meeting at Villa La Grange, Geneva</p>

Russia’s president Vladimir Putin (left) and US president Joe Biden reaching out to shake hands before their meeting at Villa La Grange, Geneva

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Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin ended talks nearly two hours early on Wednesday – suggesting a stormy bilateral relationship between the US and Russia is likely to persist.

The Kremlin chief nonetheless claimed to be happy with a “fruitful” conversation. The presidents had agreed to return ambassadors, he said, and begin discussions on the successor to an agreement on nuclear arms.

“You need to look around and see how wonderful the world is,” Mr Putin said. “How the grown-up leaders of the two world superpowers can meet and make the world a safe home.”

At his own press conference, Mr Biden said he “did what he came to do”. He had laid down red lines on Russian behaviour, he said, especially when it came to cyber warfare.

“Putin knows if they violate norms, we will respond ... I think the last thing he wants is a cold war.”

The Geneva meeting was the first face-to-face summit between the two leaders. For Mr Putin, it was his fifth US president. Mr Biden could himself hardly be described as green. He was first elected senator in 1972, when his counterpart was barely 20.

The Russian president claimed to like what he saw. Mr Biden was a “constructive, experienced, and level-headed” man, he said. He talked about his family, and what his mother told him as a boy. “That tells you about his moral values. It’s quite attractive.”

President Biden puts on his sunglasses at the end of the press conference

But, quoting Tolstoy, Mr Putin said the sides had some way to go before fully trusting one another. “There is no happiness in life, only flashes,” he said. Here, Mr Biden appeared to agree. It wasn’t a matter of trust, but “self-interest, and verification of interests”.

The two leaders famously have a complicated history. The US president has on occasion publicly denounced his counterpart as a “man with no soul” and a “killer”. The Kremlin chief suggested Mr Biden was himself projecting his own behaviour.

For all the historic barbs, the body language on show in Geneva did appear to be polite and measured from the moment the motorcades rolled up to the venue at La Grange, an 18th-century villa in central Geneva.

At an initial photocall inside the villa’s library, the US president made a point of describing Russia as a “great power”. It was an obvious attempt to show respect, and roll back Barack Obama’s 2014 description of Russia as a “regional power”. That assessment reportedly infuriated Mr Putin.

The two leaders agreed to begin a “dialogue on strategic stability”, and referred to the “inadmissibility of nuclear war” in their brief joint statement. Beyond that, the sides appeared to agree to disagree on major inflexion points. There appeared to be no progress towards an understanding on Ukraine, with Mr Putin digging in on the Kremlin’s position not to be a party to the seven-year conflict.

Mr Biden said he raised concerns on Mr Putin’s record on human rights, but these do not appear to have been a major part of discussions.

Russian president Vladimir Putin leaving Villa La Grange

“Human rights are always on the table,” Mr Biden told journalists, a phrase that stood out for its generality. “I told him unlike other countries, like Russia, we are the product of an ideal.”

The Kremlin leader’s reaction to questions on the subject gave some indication on the short shrift Mr Biden would have received had he persisted.

Here, Mr Putin channelled a familiar brand of whataboutism. Americans criticised him on human rights while “operating Guantanamo”, he said. He was called a “killer” while every day, “people are murdered on US streets”. He also dismissed the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, “that citizen”, as a criminal extremist.

Asked what would happen if Mr Navalny died in prison, the US president warned that “the consequences of that would be devastating” for Russia.

Mr Biden did not appear to be entirely straightforward with some of his answers either. When asked what could have caused talks to be cut so short, the US president made the scarcely believable claim they hadn’t departed from the script.

It was his first presidential summit with Mr Putin, he said, and first meetings “rarely lasted longer than two hours”.

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