The two leaders said the Geneva summit talks were “positive” and “constructive” and made some progress towards repairing diplomatic relations, but failed to find common ground on a number of issues that divide the countries.
US President Joe Biden and President Vladimir Putin of Russia said talks in Geneva on Wednesday were “positive” and “productive” despite the two leaders’ disagreement on topics including human rights and cybersecurity.
A tense atmosphere was predicted at the highly anticipated first meeting of the leaders since Biden took office, with US-Russia relations having deteriorated in recent years over issues such as Russian election interference, the conflict in Ukraine and the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Ahead of the summit, Biden said he would lay down some “red lines” for Putin, who told reporters last week he did not expect any major breakthroughs as a result of the meeting.
The atmosphere between the pair was expected to be frosty, with Biden having notoriously described Putin as a “killer” with “no soul” in the past and strongly condemned Russian transgressions such as its crackdown on opposition in the country and support for authoritarian regimes.
But in separate press conferences following the talks, the two leaders praised each other, with Putin insisting that the negotiations were “frank and candid” and praising Biden as an “experienced statesman and balanced politician.
The talks concluded earlier than expected after around three hours, with Biden telling reporters that the pair did not need any longer and he felt there was now a “genuine prospect to significantly improve relations” with Russia. Speaking during a solo press conference after the summit, he said: “I did what I came to do.”
The US president said the tone of the meeting was “good” and “positive”. “There wasn’t any strident action taken – where we disagreed we disagreed, but it was not done in a hyperbolic atmosphere,” he said, and insisted he did not make “threats”.
President Putin also told reporters the talks were “very constructive” and insisted there was no “hostility” between the two. He noted there were “divergent opinions” but that both sides were determined to “understand each other.”
There was little sign of agreement on the majority of issues that have been causing tension between the two leaders. On cyber-attacks, Putin brushed away accusations of Russia’s responsibility for a recent spate of attacks on the US, while Biden said he told Putin that certain critical infrastructure must be “off-limits” and that if Russia violated these “basic norms” the US would retaliate.
“You can't expect this to be a dramatic transformation,” Jussi Hanhimaki, professor of international history at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, told Geneva Solutions after the summit. “There's going to be slow progress, and in terms of the Russian-American bilateral relationship it's never going to be a particularly close or friendly one regardless of who's in the White House or in the Kremlin.”
The two leaders also clashed on human rights, including the right to protest and Navalny’s imprisonment. Putin refused to mention Navalny’s name and deflected Biden’s concerns for his welfare, attempting to justify his tough stance on political opposition by saying he did not want “insurrection” and disturbances in Russia comparable to the Capitol riots or the Black Lives Matter movement in the US.
In his later conference, Biden called Putin’s comments “ridiculous” and said human rights would “always be on the table”. Responding to a question on how the US would react if Navalny died in prison – where Putin has refused to guarantee his safety – Biden said: “I made it clear to him the consequences would be devastating for Russia.”
When questioned on why Russia would cooperate with the US, Biden said the country was “in a very, very difficult spot right now” and raised the subject of China, which experts believed would be an “elephant in the room” during the summit.
"They are being squeezed by China. They want desperately to remain a major power," he told reporters. “I think the last thing he wants is a cold war,” he added.
When questioned why he was confident Putin would toe the line on issues such as Navalny and cyberattacks after his dismissive answers to the media, Biden said: “What will change their behaviour is if the rest of the world reacts to them and it diminishes their standing in the world.”
“I think the best one can expect is some informal detente between the two,” said Hanhimaki regarding the outcome of the summit. “It’s not going to be an alliance. There are too many conflicting interests that go beyond personalities that are not going to be solved in one summit or even through a year of diplomacy. But now with more predictability and a more normal diplomatic political relationship, you can make small steps towards cooperating on certain issues that the countries have a similar interest in pursuing. ”
Despite their disagreements, the two leaders managed to find common ground and progress on a number of issues. Both sides agreed to begin a dialogue on nuclear arms control, following on from the extension of the New START arms control treaty which the pair renewed within days of the new president's inauguration.
They also said they had agreed to return ambassadors to each other's capitals – a move hailed as an important step towards rebuilding a functional diplomatic relationship between the two countries. Both leaders withdrew their envoys in March this year after the US accused Russia of interfering in the 2020 presidential election and introduced sanctions on the country.
The leaders expressed their interest in working together on areas of mutual interest including the environment, specifically the situation in the Arctic, Afghanistan and reopening humanitarian corridors in Syria. Putin also said the pair discussed exchanging prisoners on both sides and that there “could be some ground for compromise.” Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed, two former US Marines, are currently imprisoned in Russia.
“It went more or less as anticipated in the sense that there was no big breakthrough and there was no big unexpected surprise,” said Hanhimaki. “But neither was there anything that could particularly be characterized as a new setback in terms of what was on the agenda.
“Now there's a space in which diplomacy can work and be relaunched, and that is important. What comes out of that we will have to wait and see, but at least there's a possibility of something constructive – probably not in the immediate term but in the next six months or year or two, when we'll probably see some progress. ”