With stern expressions and polite words before the cameras, President Joe Biden and Russia’s Vladimir Putin plunged into hours of face-to-face talks on Wednesday at a lush lakeside Swiss mansion, a highly anticipated summit at a time when both leaders say relations between their countries are at an all-time low.
Biden called it a discussion between “two great powers” and said it was “always better to meet face to face.” Putin said he hoped the talks would be “productive.”
The meeting in a book-lined room had a somewhat awkward beginning both men appeared to avoid looking directly at each other during a brief and chaotic photo opportunity before a scrum of jostling reporters.
Biden nodded when a reporter asked if Putin could be trusted, but the White House quickly sent out a tweet insisting that the president was “very clearly not responding to any one question, but nodding in acknowledgment to the press generally.”
Putin ignored shouted questions from reporters, including whether he feared jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
The two leaders did shake hands – Biden extended his hand first and smiled at the stoic Russian leader – moments earlier when they posed with Swiss President Guy Parmelin, who welcomed them to Switzerland for the summit.
Biden and Putin first held a relatively intimate meeting joined by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Each side had a translator for the session, which lasted about an hour and a half. The meeting, after about a 40-minute break, then expanded to include senior aides on each side.
Biden and Putin were expected to meet for a total of four to five hours of wide-ranging talks.
For months, they have traded sharp rhetoric. Biden has repeatedly called out Putin for malicious cyberattacks by Russian-based hackers on US interests, for the jailing of Russia’s foremost opposition leader and for interference in American elections.
Putin has reacted with whatabout-isms and denials pointing to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol to argue that the US has no business lecturing on democratic norms and insisting that the Russian government hasn’t been involved in any election interference or cyberattacks despite US intelligence showing otherwise.
In advance of Wednesday’s meeting, 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. He added that “the fact that the two presidents agreed to meet and finally start to speak openly about the problems is already an achievement.
Arrangements for the meeting were carefully choreographed and vigorously negotiated.
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 flew into Geneva on Wednesday shortly before the scheduled start of the meeting; Biden who was already in Europe for meetings with allies arrived the day before.
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 US 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 more conventional Western leaders including 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 has remained the most powerful figure in Russian politics over the span of five US presidents, is not without talent.
“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 US, Anatoly Antonov, was recalled from Washington about three months ago after Biden called Putin a killer; US Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan left Moscow almost two months ago, after Russia suggested he return to Washington for consultations.
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 agreements.
The Biden team will press its concerns on cybersecurity. In recent months, Russia-based hackers have launched alarming attacks on a major US oil pipeline and a Brazil-headquartered meat supplier that operates in the US.
The Russian side has said that the imprisonment of Navalny, the jailed opposition leader, is an internal political matter and one area where Putin won’t engage on the matter. White House officials said, however, Biden intended to bring up the matter.
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.