Russian President Vladimir Putin and his counterpart, US President Joe Biden, held three hours of “constructive” talks in Geneva on June 16, as the two leaders attempted to put Russia and America’s relations on a more “stable” basis.
The talks between the two leaders were over faster than expected. A full five hours for meetings were scheduled but after two lengthy sessions the leaders called it a day after only three hours.
When asked why the meeting was over sooner than scheduled, Biden said that they had simply covered all the ground that they wanted to cover.
Biden called it a discussion between “two great powers” and said it was “always better to meet face to face.” Putin said the talks were “productive,” but neither man gave away much about the content of the discussions.
The meeting in a book-lined library of a palace on the shores of Lake Geneva had a somewhat awkward beginning – both men appeared to avoid looking directly at each other during a brief and chaotic photo opportunity before a scrum of jostling reporters trying to get into the building.
However, the meeting was considered a success for both leaders. Putin called it “constructive” following his meeting with Biden. One of the few concrete results to come out of the meeting was an agreement to send their respective ambassadors back to their embassies after both were withdrawn following an escalating round of tit-for-tat expulsions last month.
Biden also paid Putin a complement that was likely to be very well received in the Kremlin, in a reference to the United States and Russia as "two great powers." One of Putin’s constant complaints is that the West does not treat Russia with “respect” and attempts to force its values and decisions without regard to Russia’s own interests.
Both men had half an eye on their domestic audiences, where both have large and difficult agendas to grapple with. Putin took to quoting Tolstoy on love and Biden portrayed himself as a statesman in stark contrast to the bumbling of his predecessor, Donald Trump.
“Russia is in a very, very difficult spot right now,” Biden told Western reporters, after his meeting with Putin, responding to questions about why Russia might now want to co-operate with the US. “They are being squeezed by China. They want desperately to remain a major power.”
The presidents were upbeat as they headed to the airport, but Biden said the results of the summit would only be known in the coming year when it becomes clearer if there has been a real change in policy by the Kremlin.
While the details of the talks were not released some details have leaked out.
Biden attempted to sketch out some of the red lines that the two sides could agree were a step too far in their rivalries and clearly cyber security featured high on their agenda.
Biden told Putin that certain critical infrastructure should be “off-limits” to cyber-attacks, while the two leaders agreed in their summit to start cyber-security talks.
The comment comes a day after Nato leaders announced that cyber-attacks were going to be included in the definition of an attack that could trigger Nato’s Article five clause, a mutual response by all Nato members to an attack on any one member state.
Biden fleshed this idea out by saying the list of organisations that should not be attacked includes the 16 sectors designated by the United States as critical infrastructure. The sectors, based on a description published by the US Homeland Security Department, include telecommunications, healthcare, food and energy.
“We agreed to task experts in both our countries to work on specific understandings about what is off-limits,” Biden said. “We’ll find out whether we have a cyber-security arrangement that begins to bring some order.”
Separately during his press conference Putin said that Russia had agreed to “begin consultations” on cyber-security issues. He also said that while the United States had requested information from Russia about recent cyber-attacks, Moscow had similarly asked for information about attacks he said were coming from the US side and had not received a response.
Putin brought up a ransomware cyber-attack in May that disrupted activity at the Colonial Pipeline in the US Southeast, an attack attributed to a group believed to be based in Russia but one that Putin has said had no link to the Russian state.
The Russian state has also emphasised that it has been the victim of cyber-attacks and that Russian banks have been losing hundreds of millions of dollars a year to hackers and cyber-attacks.
Putin praised Biden's decision to agree to extend the START III nuclear treaty, and said the US State Department and Russia Foreign Ministry would be opening working level discussions on "the whole question of what will happen after that" on nuclear security.
The extension to the treaty was rushed through in the first weeks of Biden’s presidency and represents a new direction for the White House, which has let other treaties expire or has unilaterally withdrawn from them, starting with the ABM treaty in 2002.
The collapse of the Cold War security infrastructure has distressed the Kremlin, which is keen to put the old agreements back into place. As soon as the START III treaty was ratified the Russian Defence Ministry proposed opening talks on restarting the INS short-range nuclear missiles treaty.
Biden has also mentioned several times the need to put back in place the arms controls deals and prevent a new arms race breaking out.
Putin said the leaders had discussed Ukraine, but did not offer any details or conclusions beyond his insistence that the Minsk agreements be implemented to end the war in Donbas. He later accused the US of having an "unpredictable foreign policy" – a charge often levelled at Russia – by supporting a "bloody coup d'etat" in Ukraine in 2014.
Kyiv was watching the summit closely, as it is afraid of becoming a bargaining chip in the talks between the US and Russia.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was already upset by Biden’s decision to limit sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in a deal with Berlin. Putin announced the pipeline that allows Russia’s gas transit business to entirely bypass Ukraine was complete a few weeks later at St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) this year.
Putin refused to say the jailed Kremlin critic's name and attacked him for "knowingly" violating his parole by leaving Russia to receive treatment in Germany after his poisoning.
“This person knew full well that he violated the law that existed in Russia. He is a person that is a repeat offender. He deliberately violated this law,” Putin said.
“He ignored the requirement of the law. He knew he was wanted. Nonetheless, he came back to Russia. He wanted to be arrested," Putin told journalists during his press conference.
Putin countered criticism over his crackdown on the opposition by pointing to the social unrest in the US and jailing of protesters that stormed the Capitol earlier this year. He mentioned the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, saying that the US had witnessed "pogroms".
"We've seen lootings and riots [in the US]. We sympathise with the Americans and we will do whatever we can to stop this happening in Russia.," he said.
Biden said Putin’s comments defending his crackdown on protesters in Russia by invoking the Capitol insurrection was a “ridiculous comparison”.
“It’s one thing for literally criminals to break through, go into the Capitol, kill a police officer and be held accountable, than it is for objecting and marching on the capital and saying ‘you are not allowing me to speak freely’... they’re very different,” Biden said.
Putin said he and Biden had discussed human rights and noted that Biden's predecessor Donald Trump had a "different view" on the matter. He went on to attack the US for its own human rights record, pointing to Guantanamo Bay and gun violence.
"I told President Putin my agenda is not against Russia or anyone else. It's for the American people," Biden said. "I also told him that no president of the United States could keep faith with the American people if they did not speak out to defend our democratic values, to stand up for the universal and fundamental freedoms," Biden continued. "So human rights are always going to be on the table, I told him.”
Putin lashed out at a reporter who asked why all of his political opponents were dead, in prison or poisoned, and suggested that the US government is prosecuting the Capitol rioters because they marched to Congress with "political demands.”
Biden and Putin joint statement on ‘strategic stability'
At the end of the proceedings Biden and Putin issued a joint statement on “strategic stability” after their summit in Geneva.
“We, President of the United States of America Joseph R. Biden and President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, note the United States and Russia have demonstrated that, even in periods of tension, they are able to make progress on our shared goals of ensuring predictability in the strategic sphere, reducing the risk of armed conflicts and the threat of nuclear war,” the statement said.
“The recent extension of the New START Treaty exemplifies our commitment to nuclear arms control. Today, we reaffirm the principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.
“Consistent with these goals, the United States and Russia will embark together on an integrated bilateral Strategic Stability Dialogue in the near future that will be deliberate and robust.
“Through this Dialogue, we seek to lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures,” the statement concluded.
The success of the talks, Biden said, would be determined in the next few months based on whether Putin's confrontational posture towards the US improves. While Biden said he could not offer any confidence that Putin would change his behaviour, he felt that "the last thing" Putin wanted was a Cold War.
Biden said it was in Putin's self-interest to co-operate with the US, saying the Russian leader's desire to preserve his credibility worldwide could influence his behaviour.
"The bottom line is I told President Putin that we need to have some basic rules of the road that we can all abide by," Biden said.