US president Joe Biden and Russia’s Vladimir Putin have opened face-to-face talks at a highly anticipated summit in Geneva, at a time when both leaders agree that relations between their countries are at an all-time low.
The two leaders sat in a book-lined room at the start of their meeting, with both appearing to avoid looking directly at each other during a brief photo opportunity before a scrum of reporters.
Mr Putin said he hoped the talks, expected to last four or five hours, would be “productive”, while Mr Biden told him “it is always better to meet face-to-face”.
Mr Biden appeared to suggest that he could take the Russian leader at his word, nodding his head when asked by a reporter if Mr Putin could be trusted.
The two leaders had shaken hands moments earlier as they posed with Swiss president Guy Parmelin, who welcomed them to Switzerland and the lush lakeside mansion for the summit.
For months, they have traded sharp rhetoric.
Mr Biden has repeatedly called out Mr 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.
Mr Putin, for his part, has reacted with obfuscations – pointing to the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol to argue that America 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 are meeting for the first time face-to-face as leaders. In advance, both sides set out to lower expectations.
Even so, Mr Biden said it was 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 co-operate, and see if we can do that,” Mr Biden told reporters earlier this week.
“And the areas where we don’t agree, make it clear what the red lines are.”
Mr Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told The Associated Press 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,” Mr Peskov said several hours before the summit’s start.
Arrangements for the meeting were carefully choreographed and vigorously negotiated by both sides.
Mr Biden first floated the meeting in an April phone call in which he informed Mr 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.
Mr Putin and his entourage arrived first at the summit site: Villa La Grange, a grand lakeside mansion set in Geneva’s biggest park. Next came Mr Biden and his team.
Mr Putin landed in Geneva on Wednesday shortly before the scheduled start of the meeting; Mr Biden — who was in Europe for a week of meeting with allies — arrived the day before.
The three spent a moment together in front of the cameras, but only Mr Parmelin made remarks.
Mr Biden and Mr Putin were expected to first 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, Mr Putin is scheduled to hold a solo news conference, with Mr Biden following suit.