GENEVA — After about three hours of meetings and two separate press conferences on the banks of Lake Geneva, U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin seemingly worked to restart their relationship after tensions escalated recently. While not many details were revealed, both leaders said they addressed cybersecurity, nuclear weapons, human rights concerns and diplomacy.
Russian and U.S. officials had initially said they thought the meetings could last for four to five hours, possibly longer. Following the meeting, Biden said that nothing is to be made of the length of the meeting, adding that the two leaders discussed the range of issues in “excruciating detail.” He also added that he was clear on the terms of their renewed relationship. “This is not about trust,” he said. “This is about self-interest and verification of self-interest”
The meeting was the final and arguably the most anticipated part of Biden’s first foreign trip as commander in chief. Biden in the past has called Putin a “killer,” but in the days leading up to the summit, referred to him as “tough,” “bright,” and a “worthy adversary.” The meeting began with a handshake.
Despite recent tensions, Putin said that the meeting took a cordial tone. “Our assessment of many issues differ, but in my view both sides demonstrated the desire to understand each other and look for ways to get closer,” Putin said during his press conference.
Biden said he warned Putin against continuing Russian’s destabilizing actions, like election interference and cyberattacks. “I made it clear that we will not tolerate attempts to violate our democratic sovereignty or destabilize our democratic elections and we would respond.”The U.S. president added that he told the Russian leader that critical infrastructure is off limits to cyberattacks. This followed recent cyberattacks against American energy and food infrastructures that were carried out recently by criminals in Russia. Putin essentially denied any involvement in those attacks. The U.S. president also said he spoke with Putin about arms control measures in an effort to reduce the risk of war, especially as the current New START treaty is set to expire in 2026.
There are no clear dates for when those discussions will take place. The U.S. president said that he made it clear to Putin that the U.S. has “significant cyber capabilities and he knows it,” and that the last thing the Russian leader “wants now is a Cold War.”
During his press conference, Putin was pressed by American journalists on the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. He supported the move, while Biden said that he will continue to raise concerns around Navalny’s imprisonment and other human rights concerns.
The carefully choreographed meeting took place at the same lakeside villa where Cold War rivals President Ronald Reagan and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev held their first meeting in 1985.
In a show of diplomacy, Putin said during his press conference that he and Biden had agreed to return both countries’ ambassadors to their posts in an effort to lower tensions. Russia recalled its ambassador in Washington earlier this year, after Biden called Putin a “killer” and slapped new sanctions on Russia in retaliation for a major cyberattack blamed on the Kremlin that penetrated U.S. government agency computer systems.
The U.S. ambassador in Moscow, John Sulllivan, left Russia shortly after that.
“As for the timeline, tomorrow or the day after, this is pure technicality. We agreed that the Russian [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] and the [U.S.] State Department will start consultation,” Putin said of the ambassador’s return.
For the first session of their meeting, which lasted over 90 minutes, Biden and Putin sat alongside U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and two interpreters, amid a frenzy of international reporters.
Once journalists arrived in the room, Putin thanked Biden for his “initiative to meet today.”
“U.S. and Russian relations have a lot of issues accumulated that require the highest level meeting,” Putin told Biden through an interpreter.
Biden thanked Putin and added, “I think that it’s always better to meet face to face”– a sentiment the U.S. president repeated throughout the day.
During the meeting, Biden referred to the United States and Russia as “two great powers,” complimenting Putin in a direct contrast to former President Barack Obama’s previous description of Russia in 2015 as only a “regional power,” a comment meant to diminish Russia’s global stature.
The two sides moved into an expanded bilateral meeting that lasted about an hour with additional senior aides, including White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.
Biden also said the two leaders discussed Ukraine and its desire to enter the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, known as NATO. Putin illegally annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea in 2014 and Russian troops continue to mass near the Ukrainian border. “I don’t think there’s much to discuss there,” Putin said, dismissing the effort and ignoring additional questions about his threatening Ukraine.
“We believe the U.S. side is determined to look at solutions,” Putin said, adding that he felt the meetings were “very constructive” and didn’t think there was “any kind of hostility.”
Both U.S. and Russian officials had downplayed the expectations of concrete agreements coming out of the meeting.
A senior Biden administration official told reporters earlier this week that they expected “that there will be areas where the presidents will task out further work to their teams.”