US president Joe Biden and Russia’s Vladimir Putin launched into hours of face-to-face talks on Wednesday in a highly anticipated summit at a time when both leaders agree that relations between their countries are at an all-time low.
Mr Biden called the talks in Switzerland a discussion between “two great powers” and said it was “always better to meet face-to-face”. Mr Putin, for his part, said he hoped the talks would be “productive”.
The meeting in a book-lined room had a somewhat awkward beginning, with both men appearing to avoid looking directly at each other during a brief and chaotic photo opportunity before a scrum of jostling reporters.
Mr Biden nodded when a reporter asked if Mr Putin could be trusted, but the White House quickly sent out a tweet insisting the president was “very clearly not responding to any one question, but nodding in acknowledgment to the press generally”.
Mr Putin ignored shouted questions from reporters, including if he feared jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
The two leaders did shake hands — Mr Biden extended his hand first and smiled at the Russian leader — moments earlier when they posed with Swiss president Guy Parmelin, who welcomed them to the mansion in Geneva for the summit.
Mr Biden and Mr Putin are expected to meet for four to five hours of wide-ranging talks.
It was a chaotic scrum with reporters shouting over each other. @POTUS was very clearly not responding to any one question, but nodding in acknowledgment to the press generally. He said just two days ago in his presser: “verify, then trust.” https://t.co/5C9gP4XTtO
— Kate Bedingfield (@WHCommsDir) June 16, 2021
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.
In advance of Wednesday’s meeting, 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”.
He added that “the fact that the two presidents agreed to meet and finally start to speak openly about the problems is already an achievement”.
Arrangements for the meeting were carefully choreographed and vigorously negotiated.
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 Biden and Mr Putin first held a relatively intimate meeting joined by US secretary of state Antony Blinken and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. Each side had a translator for the session, which lasted about an hour-and-a-half. The meeting then expanded 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.
The White House was holding on to hope 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 Mr Biden called Mr Putin a killer; US Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan left Moscow almost two months ago, after Russia suggested he return to Washington for consultations.