Biden gets what he wants from Putin summit
White House officials sought to keep expectations low and tightly controlled the optics of the meeting, opting for a solo press conference with Biden instead of a joint one with him standing next to Putin.
The president would not divulge his planned message to Putin when asked at the preceding Group of Seven (G-7) and NATO summits, and officials repeatedly said they hoped for a “predictable and stable” relationship with Moscow, even as experts noted Putin thrives on sowing disorder.
But upon emerging from Wednesday’s meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, both Biden and Putin agreed hostilities were minimal and said they had a “positive” and “constructive” talk that took a few hours less than what White House officials had previously indicated.
“It was important to meet in person so there could be no mistake about or misrepresentations about what I wanted to communicate. I did what I came to do,” Biden said at a press conference.
The president said his goal going into the summit was to identify areas of mutual interest; make clear the U.S. would respond to Russian attacks on American interests or U.S. allies; and “lay out our country’s priorities and values so he heard it straight from me.”
Biden and Putin released a joint statement after their face-to-face meeting, saying the two countries 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.”
They agreed to start nuclear arms control and risk reduction talks in the near future and jointly reaffirmed that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” They also noted the recent extension of the 2010 New START Treaty, which limits the number of missiles and bombers the two countries can deploy.
Putin also announced that the U.S. and Russia agreed to send their ambassadors back to their respective posts in Moscow and Washington, though he did not address specific timing. Biden didn’t discuss the issue of ambassadors at his press conference.
Following Biden’s remarks in March that he thought Putin was a “killer,” Russia recalled its ambassador. The United States then recalled its ambassador in April.
Biden told reporters while leaving Geneva, “I feel good about it,” reiterating that no allied leader said anything in opposition to him meeting with Putin. Biden said he thought he was in a “better position” representing the West after his meetings with the G-7 and NATO earlier in the week.
The president’s week-long trip to Europe, which culminated with Wednesday’s summit, was a marked departure from four years of Trump’s “America First” doctrine. Biden sought at every stop to emphasize the U.S. was back at the table as a leader in global relations, and that the country viewed its commitments to NATO and G-7 allies as critical for the survival of democracy.
The Putin summit represented yet another opportunity for Biden to break from the Trump era. Trump’s 2018 summit with Putin in Helsinki was marred by Trump siding with the Russian leader over his own intelligence community on whether Moscow interfered in U.S. elections two years earlier.
The tenor of Wednesday’s meeting was far more diplomatic, as Putin described Biden as “experienced” and recalled the U.S. president quoting his mother. While Biden said he made clear to Putin that there would be consequences for cyberattacks, human rights violations and election meddling, he indicated tensions never came to a boil.
“There wasn't any strident action taken. Where we disagreed I stated where it was… but it was not done in a hyperbolic atmosphere,” Biden said.
But experts questioned whether concrete progress will come from the meeting or if Biden’s straightforward and personal approach will be enough to change Russia’s behavior.
“Biden gets to say he talked tough to Putin. But what do we really have to show for it?” said Brett Bruen, a former director of global engagement in the Obama White House. “I don’t think the United States has any greater deterrent today to stop the Kremlin’s aggressive actions around the world than there were prior to this meeting.”
The president grew frustrated during the press conference when pressed by CNN’s Kaitlan Collins on why he was confident Putin would change his behavior.
"When did I say I was confident? What I said was ... what will change their behavior is if the rest of the world reacts to them and it diminishes their standing in the world,” Biden said, later apologizing for being a “wise guy” to Collins.
Biden has faced bipartisan criticism from lawmakers for declining to sanction or block the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project that critics say will give Moscow significant leverage over European energy markets.
Top GOP lawmakers on Wednesday urged Biden to impose sanctions on Russia for the poisoning of Putin critic and activist Alexei Navalny. Biden said in his press conference he warned Putin there would be “devastating” consequences if Navalny dies in prison.
Biden was notably critical of Putin over an exchange the Russian leader had with a reporter, when he compared the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and arrests of Jan. 6 rioters to the treatment of pro-democracy protests in Russia.
“I think that’s a ridiculous comparison,” the president told reporters.
Putin had said at his press conference that some rioters on Jan. 6 were “shot on the spot” and that he felt “sympathy” for the U.S. about BLM, adding that he doesn’t want a similar movement to happen in Russia.