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Key takeaways from tense but ‘constructive’ US-Russia summit

The summit in Switzerland is over, and President Joe Biden and Russia's President Vladimir Putin are headed home. As expected, there were no large breakthroughs from talks between the two leaders. Instead, both sides cast the talks as business-like, “positive” but tense. White House Correspondent Yamiche Alcindor reports from Geneva.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The summit in Switzerland is over. And President Biden and Russia's President Vladimir Putin are headed home tonight.

    As expected, there were no large breakthroughs. Instead, both sides cast the talks as businesslike.

    White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor reports, from Geneva.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    A historic high-stakes summit between the U.S. and Russia. It began with a handshake at the doors of an 18th century villa.

    On the shores of Lake Geneva, President Joe Biden spent hours with President Vladimir Putin. President Biden said the meeting was constructive, and that neither party made overt threats. But Mr. Biden did say he made it clear that Russian attacks on the U.S., cyber or otherwise, would lead to grave consequences.

    Joe Biden, President of the United States: I made it clear that we will not tolerate attempts to violate our democratic sovereignty or destabilize our democratic elections, and we would respond.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    President Putin called the summit — quote — "very constructive."

    Still, he took no responsibility for the cyberattacks from Russian criminals that have targeted U.S. infrastructure, and he dismissed questions about Russian military aggression in Ukraine.

    Before the meeting, both leaders said relations between the U.S. and Russia are at a new low. But today began with the two sounding hopeful.

  • Vladimir Putin, Russian President (through translator):

    Mr. President, I'd like to thank you for your initiative to meet today. I know that you have been on a long tour. Still, U.S. and Russian relations have a lot of issues accumulated that require the highest-level meeting. And I hope that our meeting will be productive.

  • President Joe Biden:

    Thank you. I said it outside. I think it's always better to meet face to face.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    President Biden referred to the U.S. and Russia as — quote — "two great powers."

    In 2014, former President Obama notably referred to Russia only as a — quote — "regional power," a dig that has stuck with Putin. Today's summit was held in the same place that President Ronald Reagan and the former Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, held their first meeting in 1985.

    The two leaders began with their chief diplomats at their sides, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The talks then expanded to include senior officials from each side, including White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.

    Russian state media posted this photo of the meeting. After about three hours, Putin and Mr. Biden concluded the summit. That was shorter than the four to five hours that U.S. officials had said it would go.

  • President Joe Biden:

    Kind of, after two hours there, we kind of looked at each other, like, OK, what next?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    In a striking joint statement, the two nuclear superpowers also agreed — quote — "A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought."

    The leaders decided to hold separate press conferences. Putin went first. When he was pressed on the jailing and killing of his political opponents, he invoked the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin (through translator):

    As for who is killing whom, or throwing people in jail, people came to the U.S. with political demands.

    Over 400 people had criminal charges placed on them. Some people died, and one of the people that died was simply shot on the spot by the police, although they were not threatening the police with any weapons.

    In many countries, this same thing happens that happens in our country. I would like to stress once more that we sympathize with what happened in the United States, but we have no desire to allow the same thing to happen in our country.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    In his own press conference, I questioned President Biden about those very statements.

    He said the reason why he's cracking down on opposition leaders is because he doesn't want something like January 6 to happen in Russia. And he also said he doesn't want to see groups formed like Black Lives Matter. What's your response to that, please?

  • President Joe Biden:

    That's a ridiculous comparison. It's one thing for literally criminals to break through cordon, go into the Capitol, kill a police officer, and be held unaccountable than it is for people objecting and marching on the Capitol and saying, you are not allowing me to speak freely.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    President Biden said he addressed a range of issues in the meeting.

  • President Joe Biden:

    He knows I will take action.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Mr. Biden said he gave Putin a list of critical U.S. infrastructure that should be off that table for attacks.

    The president said he raised Russia's military aggression in Ukraine and the poisoning and jailing of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

    As to when the U.S. will see whether Putin received Biden's message today:

  • President Joe Biden:

    We will find out within the next six months to a year whether or not we actually have a strategic dialogue that matters.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Yamiche joins me now from Geneva.

    Hello, Yamiche.

    So, after all is said and done, what were the biggest takeaways from this summit? And how have President Biden and President Putin been characterizing it?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, the biggest takeaway from this historic summit is that President Biden really did strike a much different tone than his predecessor, former President Donald Trump.

    Remember, in 2018, in Helsinki, Finland, President Trump at the time even said that he would take the word over Russia over U.S. intelligence agencies, who said that Russia was meddling in the 2016 presidential election, had meddled.

    This time around, President Biden was firm. He said that there would be grave consequences if Russia meddled in our elections and if there was continued ransomware attacks. He even said, while there were no overt threats, he said specifically to the Russian president, he said that, if you — you wouldn't like if your infrastructure was attacked. You wouldn't like if oil fields were hit here.

    The other thing to note, though, is that both leaders said that this was a constructive meeting, there was no overt hostility. So, overall, it seems like this was a successful meeting for President Biden.

    The other thing to note, though, is that the Russian president still took no responsibility for these criminal gangs that have been carrying out these attacks on U.S. infrastructure. That's a space that we're going to have to continue to watch, because there was no real movement when you look at President Putin's statements today.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Yamiche, as has been reported, another major focus from these meetings was human rights.

    Tell us more about what came out on that front.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, both leaders said that there were some gains, but there was also tension that you could feel and that was clear here on the ground in Switzerland.

    And the core of that was these human rights differences between President Biden and President Putin. Now, President Putin really had no change in the way that he spoke about Alexei Navalny. He wouldn't even say his name, of course, that being the opposition leader that is jailed in Russia.

    And President Biden said he went and talked to President Putin specifically about Navalny, saying that there would be devastating consequences for Russia if that opposition leader died. Another thing to note is that President Putin, when he was pressed on human rights issues, he invoked January 6, saying, in all effect, that the United States has its own problems with crime, with Black Lives Matter, in some ways spreading this information about that group.

    And when President Biden responded to that, he said that was ridiculous. And he said, look, there's a big difference between people breaking into the U.S. Capitol insurrectionists, he said, and people who want to speak freely and cannot, which is what's happening in Russia.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so looking ahead, Yamiche, what is it expected that will — is going to be a result of this meeting? What happens next?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, that's the key question here. What is going to come of this summit? What's going to come of these leaders meeting with their aides in these extended hours-long talks?

    There really is a big question there. President Biden said, in three to six months, it will be clear whether or not there was some fruits out of this summit, but it really, I think, in some ways, feels very vague in terms of, what are the actual deliverables?

    I will say, of course, that there is this working group now going on between the U.S. and Russia when it comes to cybersecurity and strategic arms.

    President Biden, though, said that he got the sense that the Russian president didn't want another Cold War. So that's something that was important. And, of course, we highlighted the joint statement that said, these two nuclear superpowers, they don't want a nuclear war, that that should not happen.

    So, there was, in some ways, some talk of peace, some real clear talk of peace. But it really is going to be about what happens in the months and weeks from now to see if this really has consequences that we can measure in a real way.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, Yamiche Alcindor covering today's meeting between President Biden and Russia's President Putin.

    Thank you, Yamiche.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Thanks so much.

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