While no major breakthroughs were announced following the highly anticipated summit between the presidents of the US and Russia in Switzerland on Wednesday, there was one clear winner to emerge from it: Vladimir Putin.
“In the very first minute of the meeting, [President Joe] Biden granted him a gift,” Andrei Soldatov, a Russian journalist and coauthor of several books on Russia, told BuzzFeed News from London. “[Biden] said Russia and the United States are ‘two great powers.’”
It certainly wasn’t the fawning praise that Donald Trump offered of Putin during their disastrous 2018 summit in Helsinki that had one top White House adviser wishing she had faked a medical emergency in order to abruptly end it.
But by equating the strength of the two nations, even if that’s not what Biden meant to do, Soldatov said, “Putin got exactly what he wanted.”
Geneva rolled out the red carpet for the two leaders, lining the streets with the flags of their respective countries and cordoning off much of the area around the lakeside villa where they would meet. Meanwhile, scores of reporters clamored for positions close to them and cable news channels narrated their every move as they began their top-level talks.
The summit was carefully choreographed by the US side to ensure no mishaps or moments that would show the two leaders being overly friendly, like there were during the Trump–Putin summit, and to not allow Putin to set the tone and pace of events. For example, the US asked that Putin, whose power move is to show up late to such events to ice his adversaries, arrive first to the meeting. They also eschewed a joint press conference.
Putin had initially appeared awkward and even annoyed at times during the first minutes of the summit, turning his eyes toward the ground and away from Biden, tapping the arm of his chair during a photo op, and digging his tongue into his cheek. But make no mistake: The Russian president knew he was center stage, in the geopolitical limelight, despite having been cast out of the Group of Seven Nations and made a pariah after a series of cyberattacks, election interference, and military invasions of neighboring Ukraine, just to name a few of Moscow’s aggressive actions in recent years.
After a little more than three hours — at least an hour shorter than planned — of closed-door talks, Putin appeared first in front of reporters for his solo press conference. Shedding the pouty look he had worn earlier in the day, the Russian leader appeared pleased with himself and even seemed to relish the media attention.
Speaking about the discussions, Putin said there was no animosity or hostility between himself and Biden, calling their meeting “constructive” but their opinions and perspectives “divergent.” He said both sides demonstrated a desire to understand each other and bring their positions closer, but he suggested he hadn’t budged an inch on big issues like human rights in Russia and the war in Ukraine, which his military invaded in 2014 and now controls two large swathes of territory.
Biden, speaking at his own press conference later, said he had stressed human rights issues in the meeting. “I’m going to keep saying it… We don’t derive our rights from the government. We possess them because we’re born,” said Biden. “Period.”
That’s why, Biden continued, the US will continue to raise issues like the persecution and prosecution of people like Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader imprisoned in Russia on charges widely viewed as retaliation for his political activities.
On Navalny, Putin told reporters that he and Biden had starkly different positions. He said that Navalny knew he had violated the law when he was medically evacuated to Germany after being poisoned by the Novichok nerve agent last summer. Asked by a reporter what would happen if Putin allowed Navalny to die in prison, Biden said, “I made it clear to him the consequences would be devastating for Russia.”
Delighting in the opportunity to criticize the US for its own civil rights struggles, Putin also brought up police brutality in the US and its frequent mass shootings: “You can hardly open your mouth before being shot dead,” he said.
On the hot-button issue of cyberwarfare, Biden said he and Putin agreed to further discussions on keeping certain types of critical infrastructure off-limits to cyberattacks following recent incidents in the US that saw the shutdowns of a major gas pipeline and a meat processing plant. Biden also said he was crystal clear with Putin about how the US will respond if the attacks continue.
“We will respond in a cyber way. He knows,” Biden said.
Putin said he and Biden had agreed to find ways to cooperate on the issue of climate change, particularly in the Arctic. And he said he and Biden found common ground on the issue of arms control, saying that as the world’s top nuclear powers, they understand their responsibility. He noted Biden made the “timely and necessary” decision to extend the New START Treaty for five years and said they agreed to begin negotiations on a new pact. Biden said this means that diplomats and military experts from the two countries will soon meet for a “strategic stability dialogue” to lay the groundwork for the new treaty.
Putin also said that Russia and the US agreed each other’s ambassadors “should return to their posts and take up their functions” in the near future.
But outside of that, there appeared to be no major breakthroughs from the summit.
That’s not surprising. White House officials had said prior to the summit they didn’t expect the meeting to lead to any major policy agreements, instead describing it as the first step to establishing a working relationship between the two presidents. They had last met a decade ago and had what Biden described as a tense exchange. (Biden said he told then–prime minister Putin, “I don’t think you have a soul.”)
Unlike the embarrassing 2018 meeting in Helsinki between Putin and Trump, who flattered the Russian leader and said he trusted him over US intelligence workers when Putin maintained that the Kremlin didn’t interfere in the 2016 election, this summit was never expected to be a friendly affair.
For months, the two countries have traded barbs. In March, Biden called Putin a “killer” — a remark the Kremlin described as “very bad.” They subsequently recalled their ambassador in DC to “analyze what needs to be done” about the countries’ relations; the Kremlin later asked the US ambassador to also return home.
In the days before the Geneva summit, Biden seemed to soften his stance in hopes of laying more friendly ground upon which he could meet Putin, calling him bright, tough, and “a worthy adversary.” But Biden also said he wouldn’t take his counterpart at his word and would “verify, then trust” him.
Still, with relations between the US and Russia at their lowest point since the Cold War, that a face-to-face meeting at the highest level took place at all was a positive development, according to some experts.
“It’s definitely not talking for the sake of talking. Biden … understands the dance of diplomacy,” Matthew Rojansky, the director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, told BuzzFeed News. “It’s a recognition of knowing how the Russian system works. If what you’re trying to do is put guardrails on Russia’s escalating behavior, you can’t just do that at lower levels.”
A joint US–Russia statement released at the conclusion of the summit said that Biden and Putin “have demonstrated that, even in periods of tension, they are able to make progress on our shared goals of ensuring predictability in the strategic sphere, reducing the risk of armed conflicts and the threat of nuclear war.”
So will Wednesday’s meeting lead to an improvement or new stage in US–Russia relations?
Biden said it will take three to six months to know whether the summit had produced results.
For his part, Putin said it’s “difficult to say” and suggested the ball was in Washington’s court.
“Everything to do with the deterioration of our mutual relations was initiated not by us but by the US,” Putin said falsely.
He then added, paraphrasing Russian writer Leo Tolstoy: “There’s no happiness in life. There’s only a mirage on the horizon, so cherish that.”