Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden agreed in a “constructive” summit to return their nations’ ambassadors to their posts and begin negotiations to replace the last remaining treaty between the two countries limiting nuclear weapons.
- Mr Biden raised cybersecurity and human rights issues, including the fate of opposition activist Alexei Navalny
- The two leaders discussed starting talks to replace the New START treaty limiting nuclear weapons
- Ambassadors from Russia and the US are expected to return to their posts soon
Mr Putin said there was “no hostility” during the talks, which wrapped up more quickly than expected.
The two sides had said they expected to meet for four to five hours but spent less than three hours together, including an opening meeting with just the two presidents and each leader’s top foreign aide.
When it was over, Mr Putin had first crack at describing the results at a solo news conference, with Mr Biden to follow with his own session with reporters.
Mr Putin acknowledged that Mr Biden raised human rights issues with him, including the fate of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Mr Putin defended Navalny’s prison sentence and deflected repeated questions about mistreatment of Russian opposition leaders by highlighting US domestic turmoil, including the Black Lives Matter protests and the January 6 Capitol insurrection.
Mr Putin held forth for nearly an hour before international reporters.
While showing defiance at queries about Mr Biden pressing him on human rights, he also expressed a significant measure of respect for Mr Biden as an experienced political leader.
The Russian leader noted that Mr Biden repeated wise advice his mother had given him and also spoke about his family, demonstrating “moral values” — if not entirely relevant to their summit.
He doubted the US-Russia relationship could soon return to a measure of equilibrium of years past, but Mr Putin suggested Mr Biden was someone he could work with.
“The meeting was actually very efficient,” Mr Putin said.
Mr Putin said he and Mr Biden agreed to begin negotiations on nuclear talks to potentially replace the New START treaty limiting nuclear weapons after it expires in 2026.
Washington broke off talks with Moscow in 2014 in response to Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea and its military intervention in support of separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Talks resumed in 2017 but gained little traction and failed to produce an agreement on extending the New START treaty during the Trump administration.
Diplomats return to posts
The Russian President said there was an agreement between the leaders to return their ambassadors to their respective postings.
Both countries had pulled back their top envoys to Washington and Moscow as relations chilled in recent months.
Russia’s ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, was recalled from Washington about three months ago after Mr Biden called Mr Putin a killer.
US Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan left Moscow almost two months ago, after Russia suggested he return to Washington for consultations.
Mr Putin said the ambassadors were expected to return their posts in the coming days.
Mr Putin also said the two sides agreed in principle to begin consultations on cybersecurity issues, though he continued to deny US allegations that the Russian government was responsible for a spate of recent high-profile hacks against business and government agencies in the United States and around the globe.
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.
Their body language, at least in their brief moments together in front of the press, was not exceptionally warm.
The two leaders did shake hands — Mr Biden extended his hand first and smiled at the stoic Russian leader — after Swiss President Guy Parmelin welcomed them to Switzerland for the summit.
When they were in front of the cameras a few minutes later — this time inside the grand lakeside mansion where the summit was held — they seemed to avoid eye contact.
For months, Mr Biden and Mr Putin have traded sharp rhetoric.
Mr Biden has repeatedly called out Mr Putin for malicious cyber attacks by Russian-based hackers on US interests, for the jailing of Russia’s foremost opposition leader and for interference in American elections.
Mr Putin has reacted with whatabout-isms and denials — pointing to the January 6 riots 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 cyber attacks despite US intelligence showing otherwise.
In advance of Wednesday’s meeting, both sides set out to lower expectations.
Even so, Mr 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.
Arrangements for the meeting were carefully choreographed and vigorously negotiated.
Mr Biden first floated the meeting in an April phone call in which he informed Mr Putin that he would be expelling several Russian diplomats and imposing sanctions against dozens of people and companies.
The White House announced ahead of the summit that Mr Biden wouldn’t hold a joint news conference with Mr Putin, deciding it did not want to appear to elevate Mr Putin at a moment when the US President is urging European allies to pressure Mr Putin to cut out myriad provocations.
‘A worthy adversary’
Mr 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 Mr Biden has labeled an “autocrat”, and more conventional Western leaders including Canada’s Justin Trudeau.
But with Mr Putin, who he has said has “no soul,” Mr 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,” Mr Biden said earlier this week.
Mr Biden had 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.
Mr Biden, in a brief exchange with reporters upon arriving in Geneva on Tuesday night, sought to offer the impression that he wasn’t sweating his big meeting.
“I am always ready,” Mr Biden said.