But after the conclusion of the summit, the ornate French-style mansion was locked and the rulers flew in opposite directions, the state of relations between the United States and Russia seemed about the same as it was. before.
This is not necessarily a surprise, especially for Biden, who entered the top with the vague and modest goal of establishing a “predictable and rational” relationship with Vladimir Putin.
Putin’s performance thereafter was certainly predictable, if not entirely rational.
In the end, Biden set expectations so low for his first face-to-face meeting with Putin that nothing more than someone who didn’t show up at all amounted to breaking even.
There have been modest achievements, such as the decision to fire each country’s ambassadors to their posts and the establishment of cyberattack task forces, perhaps the most significant new point of contention between Washington and Moscow.
But in Biden and Putin’s words, the summit was not meant for big breakthroughs. Instead, everyone said it was all about taking stock, being honest, and moving forward.
From man to man
Biden’s decision to call Wednesday’s summit boiled down to his core foreign affairs vision: it’s all about the person.
“I know we’re making foreign policy this great, great skill, kind of like a secret code,” Biden said in his closing press conference. “All foreign policy is a logical extension of personal relationships. This is how human nature works. “
Judging by these parameters, the summit seemed to have achieved its goals.
“The tone of the whole meeting was good, positive,” Biden said, adding, “At the end of the day, I told President Putin that we have to have ground rules of the road that we can all stick to. “
Putin gave a somewhat similar description.
“He is a balanced and professional man, and it is clear that he is very experienced,” said Putin. “It seems to me that we speak the same language.
Yet he offered no signs of changing malicious behavior that tested the West’s ability and willingness to respond. And he didn’t change his rhetoric, denouncing Alexey Navalny and denying Russia’s role in cyber attacks.
Instead, he described three straightforward, pragmatic hours that hadn’t led to a deep or emotional connection.
“It certainly does not imply that we have looked each other in the eye and found a soul or that we have sworn eternal friendship,” he said.
Nothing like Trump
A primary goal of Biden’s team when planning their summit with Putin was to avoid the spectacle that unfolded in Helsinki in 2018, when then-President Donald Trump met Putin alone during two hours and emerged to say he believed the Russian on US intelligence in the election. take part to.
They decided not to hold a joint press conference to avoid a similar scenario.
Wednesday’s summit was definitely different. Even Putin noticed it.
“His predecessor had a different point of view,” he said. “He decided to act differently. His response was different from Trump’s. ”
Biden, meanwhile, has been open about the areas in which he clashed with Putin – including election interference and human rights, which Trump has often downplayed or ignored in his meetings with the Russian leader.
Yet for all the differences there was a similarity. As he left his press conference, and again at Geneva airport, Biden took issue with the way reporters framed his trip.
“To be a good journalist, you have to be negative,” he said. “You never ask a positive question. “
Biden apologized for berating CNN’s Kaitlan Collins at his press conference for asking what made him confident Putin could change.
But his warning on negative issues could easily come from his predecessor.
Skeptics of Biden’s meeting with Putin have questioned whether meeting the Russian leader so early in Biden’s tenure could elevate the former KGB spy’s stature on the world stage.
Biden’s assistants were aware of this risk; one of the reasons they decided not to hold a joint press conference was that it could potentially improve Putin if he is seen alongside the US president.
But when Biden sat down with Putin inside Villa la Grange, he took it upon himself to describe Russia and the United States as “two great powers,” a notable choice of word after previous officials. Americans have sought to minimize Russian influence.
Even Biden’s former boss, former President Barack Obama, described Russia as a mere “regional power” after the country invaded Crimea.
Putin has long sought respect from the West, even as it tests its limits. Some critics of Biden’s meeting said his lack of firm results meant it was little more than a photoshoot that would prove a boon to Putin’s air of legitimacy.
Biden, whose full remarks were impossible to hear despite a din from reporters scrambling to enter the room, seemed to argue that leaders of big, important countries need to find ways to treat each other, even amid their differences.
Same look of Putin
When Putin emerged after the several-hour summit, he acknowledged that the meeting with Biden was “constructive.”
“I think both sides have shown their determination to try to understand each other and to try to converge our positions,” he said.
But he continued to perform the same type of equivocal, denial-filled performance he always does when in a rush on cybercrime, human rights and Ukraine issues.
This came as no surprise to US officials, who did not take part in the talks believing that Biden would be magically able to change Putin’s rhetoric, let alone his behavior. It was also not unusual for Putin, who has often worked to cultivate relations with American leaders even though he openly ignores their concerns in public.
The only difference in Wednesday’s appearance was his reach: because he had just concluded a much-anticipated summit with the US president, his words were broadcast around the world, including on US television networks.
His final press conference preceded Biden in a highly planned summit choreography. This allowed Biden to refute many of his points.
Yet his turn has been the most publicized in years and has only underscored the difficulties Biden has faced in the talks by raising serious questions with a counterpart who denies that the very problems exist.
Going into his talks with Putin, Biden made it clear that cyber attacks – and in particular the recent wave of ransomware hacks carried out by criminal syndicates operating inside Russia – will be an important part of his talks.
Biden believes countries like Russia have a responsibility to crack down on cybercrime originating in their country. At previous G7 and NATO meetings this week, he has convinced his fellow Western leaders to include language in their final statements supporting him.
One of the main – and only – outcomes of Wednesday’s talks was the agreement to task experts to “work on specific understandings on what is prohibited and to monitor specific cases.”
Biden appeared to recognize the limitations of the decision: “Principle is one thing, it has to be backed up by practice,” Biden said.
And he revealed a telling aspect of his attempts to convince Putin of the seriousness of the crimes: “Well, how would you feel if ransomware demonstrated your oilfields pipelines? He said he told Putin.
Biden did not say how Putin responded. But he said he told Putin that the United States has “significant cyber capacity” and that it will respond to new cyber attacks.
” He knows it. He doesn’t know exactly what it is, but he knows it’s important, ”Biden said. “If in fact they violate its basic standards, we will respond. “
Biden’s confrontation did little to change Putin’s tone at the end of the summit. Referring to the Colonial Pipeline violation, which the United States blamed on Russian-based hackers, Putin asked, “What do the Russian authorities have to do with this?
The response came as no particular surprise to US officials, who did not come to the top believing Putin would suddenly change his mind. Instead, they wanted Biden to relay clear consequences for cybercrime, a rapidly evolving threat that Biden at least wants to be able to communicate with Putin on.