President Joe Biden and Russia’s Vladimir Putin sit down on Wednesday for their highly anticipated summit in the Swiss city of Geneva, a moment of high-stakes diplomacy at a time when both leaders agree that US-Russian relations are at an all-time low.
For four months, the two leaders have traded sharp rhetoric. Biden repeatedly called out Putin for malicious cyberattacks by Russian-based hackers on US interests, a disregard for democracy with the jailing of Russia’s foremost opposition leader and interference in American elections.
Putin, for his part, has reacted with whatabout-isms and obfuscations – pointing to the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol to argue that the US has no business lecturing on democratic norms and insisting that the Russian government has not been involved in any election interference or cyberattacks despite US intelligence showing otherwise.
Now, the pair will meet for their first face-to-face as leaders – a conversation that is expected to last four to five hours. In advance, both sides set out to lower expectations.
Even so, Biden has said it would be 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, said on Wednesday that no breakthroughs were expected and that “the situation is too difficult in Russian-American relations.
“However, the fact that the two presidents agreed to meet and finally start to speak openly about the problems is already an achievement,” Peskov said several hours before the summit’s scheduled start time.
Arrangements for the meeting have been carefully choreographed and vigorously negotiated by both sides.
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 will arrive first at the summit site: Villa La Grange, a grand lakeside mansion set in Geneva’s biggest park. Next come Biden and his team. Swiss President Guy Parmelin will greet the two leaders.
The three will spend a moment together in front of the cameras, but only Parmelin is expected to make remarks, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters.
Biden and Putin first will hold a relatively intimate meeting joined by US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, and Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov. Each side will have a translator.
The meeting will then expand to include five senior aides on each side.
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 president is urging European allies to pressure Putin to cut out numerous provocations.
Biden sees himself with few peers on foreign policy. He travelled 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 conventional politicians like Canada’s Justin Trudeau.
But with Putin, whom the president has said is a “killer” and 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. Biden this week suggested that he is approaching his meeting with Putin carefully.
“He’s bright. He’s tough,” Biden told reporters. “And I have found that he is a – as they say…a worthy adversary.”
There are hopes 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.
Both ambassadors will be in Geneva during Wednesday’s meeting.
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 by holding “strategic stability” talks – a series of government-to-government discussions meant to sort through the many areas of disagreement and tension on the national security front.
The Biden team will press its concerns on cybersecurity. In recent months, Russia-based hackers have launched crippling 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 Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is an internal political matter and one area where Putin will not engage Biden.
But the senior Biden administration official said there “is no issue that is off the table for the president,” suggesting Navalny will come up.
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.