President Biden planned to press Russian President Vladimir Putin on alleged hacking, human rights violations, and other irritants in a historic first summit Wednesday, overshadowed by President Donald Trump’s unprecedented deference to the astute Russian leader over the previous four years.
Putin has publicly denied Russian wrongdoing, but he may be seeking cooperation in other areas, such as climate change, arms control, and possibly a prisoner swap. Expectations on both sides were purposefully kept low.
The session began with a mix of warmth and chaos, as the two presidents shook hands outside the historic lakeside villa where the talks are being held, then watched, Putin mostly silent, as Russian and American officials jostled, elbowed, and shouted during what was supposed to be a sedate opening photo.
Putin, seated with his knees apart and in a slight slouch, was barely audible above the din.
Biden expressed hope that the two countries can cooperate in areas where they have mutual interests and find a way forward on issues where they disagree. The complimentary word choice was noteworthy. Russia has the world’s second-largest nuclear arsenal, but its global influence has declined significantly since the fall of the Soviet Union.
NATO was founded in large part to counter the Soviet Union, and it continues to be a particular target of Putin’s criticism of the West. He was said to enjoy Trump’s rants about the alliance being unfair to the United States.
Given Putin’s history of keeping US and other foreign leaders waiting, his timely arrival in Geneva on Wednesday was viewed as a positive first step. The sessions started on time, with Swiss President Guy Parmelin greeting both leaders outside the villa around 1:30 p.m. local time. The meetings started a short time later.
According to Russian state media, the meetings will last four to five hours and will cover issues of direct concern to Russia and the United States, as well as global issues such as the coronavirus pandemic.
Following the sessions, each leader will hold a solo news conference, which U.S. officials said could last much longer than expected. Putin will speak first, followed by Biden, who will conclude the summit. In April, Biden extended an invitation to Putin, offering to meet early in his presidency to try to improve communication and establish what U.S. officials referred to as “rules of the road.” Republicans criticized the overture as being overly generous to Putin, despite the fact that Trump, a Republican, and other presidents have met with Putin fairly early in their tenures.
The structure, which is located in a historic lakeside villa in Geneva, was designed to stand in stark contrast to Trump’s interactions with Putin in general. For each session, Biden will be accompanied by top aides; Trump had barred aides from at least one session with Putin and demanded interpreter’s notes. The series of press conferences is meant to dispel the image of Trump standing alongside Putin at a similar summit in Helsinki in 2018. There, Trump chose not to confront Putin about Russian election meddling and instead relied on the Russian leader’s word over the findings of US intelligence agencies.
Putin also stated that he would be willing to engage in a prisoner swap with the United States. Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed, both US Marines, are among those being held in Russian prisons. Putin mentioned Konstantin Yaroshenko, who is serving a 20-year prison sentence in the United States for drug conspiracy, as someone Russia might want back in a trade. One of Putin’s top priorities may be Ukraine’s possible accession to NATO, which Russia sees as a direct threat on its border.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has advocated for Kyiv to be admitted as a full member, but Biden stated on Monday that “it remains to be seen.” He went on to say that Ukraine must first meet the criteria, which include cleaning up corruption.
Putin will also address the issue of returning Russia’s diplomatic property, according to Peskov. President Barack Obama ordered the seizure of two Russian diplomatic compounds and the expulsion of 35 Russians in 2016 in response to Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.