A much-anticipated summit between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin ended with a gradual thaw in relations, and the two leaders remained in the same positions they had before Wednesday’s meeting in Geneva.
Mr Biden and Mr Putin have agreed to return their respective ambassadors to Moscow and Washington, after both leaving their posts amid heightened tensions earlier this year. They also supported a joint declaration that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” and agreed to create working groups on cybersecurity and arms control.
Mr Biden said that only time will tell if those efforts have resulted in any real progress. “It’s not about trust. It’s about self-interest and self-interest verification, ”he said at a solo press conference after the summit. “As that old saying goes, ‘The proof of the pudding is in the eating.’ We will find out shortly.
Highlighting the United States’ anger at a spate of cyber attacks and ransomware emanating from Russia, Mr Biden said he had given Mr Putin a list of 16 “critical infrastructure” targets – and told the Kremlin boss that the United States would respond in the same way if any of them were targeted. . “We have significant cybernetic capabilities, and Putin knows it. Mr. Biden said the consequences of a US cyberattack “would be devastating.”
In his own press conference, Mr Putin denied that Russia was a malicious actor in cyberspace, saying the main sources of cyberattacks were the United States, followed by Canada and two unnamed countries in Latin America. It was not clear how Mr Putin compiled his list.
Despite the lack of major breakthroughs, the two men hailed the mood during the one-day meeting on the shores of Lake Geneva. Mr Biden said he was “pleased” to have conveyed his message that the United States is once again determined to stand up for human rights around the world.
Mr Putin, who has met five different US presidents since coming to power at the turn of the century, said there had been “no hostility” during the talks, which he said took place “in a constructive spirit ”.
He said the two men “generally spoke the same language. This does not mean at all that we have to necessarily look into the soul, into the eyes and swear eternal love and friendship. Not at all, we are protecting the interests of our countries and our peoples. These relationships are above all pragmatic.
The leaders appeared to have found no new common ground on key issues such as Ukraine’s future and the Kremlin’s continued crackdown on its national opposition.
On Ukraine, Mr Putin has remained on the same line as Russia since 2015 – that peace in the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine, which is under the control of Moscow-backed “separatists” , could only be achieved by adhering to the Minsk Protocol. .
Successive Ukrainian governments have pushed for a renegotiation or reinterpretation of the Minsk accord, which was negotiated at a time when Russian troops threatened to seize more of Ukraine. Mr Putin said on Wednesday that nothing could happen until Ukraine fully implemented the Minsk terms.
Mr Biden said he raised the issue of Ukraine’s sovereignty with Mr Putin. Earlier this week, NATO called on Russia “to stop fueling the conflict by providing financial and military support to the armed formations it is supporting in eastern Ukraine.”
Likewise, Mr. Putin gave no reason on the issue of human rights in Russia. Asked by foreign media about the January arrest of opposition leader Alexey Navalny, Mr Putin said Mr Navalny – whom he avoided citing by name – had willfully broken the law. Mr Putin has repeatedly suggested that Mr Navalny and his organization were foreign agents, linking them to US efforts to support democracy abroad.
“If Russia is the enemy, then what organizations will America support in Russia? Mr Putin said. “I think it’s not those who strengthen the Russian Federation, but those who contain it – which is the publicly announced goal of the United States. “
Mr. Putin refuted questions about Mr. Navalny by referring to the Black Lives Matter movement and, separately, the January 6 violence on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, which saw supporters of former President Donald Trump attempt to ‘prevent the inauguration of Mr. Biden. “We do not want this kind of thing to happen on our territory and we will do everything possible to prevent it,” said Putin.
Speaking after Putin’s remarks, Mr Biden told reporters it was “ridiculous” to compare the January 6 rioters with those calling for democracy in Russia. In one of his strongest remarks, Mr Biden said it would be “devastating for Russia” if Mr Navalny – who survived a poisoning attack last year as the leader of the Russian opposition accused Putin of ordering – to die in prison.
Despite such divisions, Mr Biden said it was useful to meet the Russian leader one-on-one. “I think there is a real prospect of significantly improving relations between our two countries, without giving up a single lonely thing based on principles and our values. “
The host Switzerland has said it is ready to act as a mediator if the United States and Russia decide to proceed with a prisoner swap which Mr Biden and Mr Putin have hinted is possible. Such an exchange could see Paul Whelan, a Canadian-born US national jailed in Russia since 2018 on espionage charges, released in exchange for the release of Russian nationals in US prisons.
The two presidents first met for just over 90 minutes in a small group, joined only by their translators and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. This was followed by a larger rally, with five other officials joining on each side for a second session that lasted just over an hour.
The setting, an 18th-century villa on the shores of Lake Geneva, recalls the previous international gatherings that the picturesque Swiss town hosted. They include a 1985 summit between US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev which is widely seen as a turning point in the Cold War, as well as more recent multinational meetings aimed at ending the civil war in Syria.
While Mr Putin was seen to benefit from the appearance of being treated equally by the President – Villa La Grange was chosen because of its symmetrical design, allowing both delegations to have access to an even space – the ambiance was distinctly cooler than in 1985.
Mr Reagan and Mr Gorbachev shared a sofa, forcing their note-taking assistants to gather to hear what was being said, then were joined by their wives for a five-course lobster dinner after the summit. Mr Biden and Mr Putin, meanwhile, shook hands briskly before taking their seats across from each other at a wooden table.
Delegations only took a 20-minute break during Wednesday’s talks, and official photos appeared to show the two delegations had even drunk different brands of bottled water.