Before a US-Russian summit that both leaders called “constructive” and “pragmatic” afterwards, Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin made few concrete agreements. Just one: the recalled ambassadors from both countries will soon return to their posts. On all other tricky points, only ‘further consultation’ has been agreed.
“We’ll know where we stand in six months,” Biden said in his press conference. “There was the glimmer of hope,” Russian President Putin said.
The presidential summit, held Wednesday in a small villa on Lake Geneva, almost started with a scuffle. After the two presidents shook hands on the steps, a run of Russian and American journalists started on the door of the high-security library, where the next press moment was to take place. As the meeting officially began, the screams of furious journalists came from outside.
While Putin flew in fresh from Moscow, Biden had already spent a full week in talks with European leaders and NATO. “In Russian and American relations, many issues have piled up that warrant a summit meeting,” Putin said. “There is no better diplomacy than a face-to-face conversation,” Biden replied.
The meeting, divided into several rounds of discussion with varying composition, lasted shorter than expected. According to Biden, this was because after “an hour or two” they looked at each other and thought: what else are we talking about?
From the post-show press conferences, held separately at Biden’s request, both leaders individually answered questions from journalists — revealing profound differences of opinion. They talked about cybercrime. The US intelligence services attribute some important hacks of, among others, the Department of Homeland Security, a pipeline and a meat processing factory to Russian criminal organizations. In his press conference, Putin brushed that suggestion aside. He mentioned in vague terms a study that would have found that attacks from the United States are at the top of the cybercrime rankings. “And then Latin America, Canada, the United Kingdom. Russia is not on this list.”
Putin said nothing about a list Biden did mention afterwards of “sixteen, I thought” vital pieces of US infrastructure that should never be used for cyber-attacks. According to Biden, it has been agreed that this will be negotiated further by experts who will discuss which sectors belong on the list and what measures are being taken to punish attacks on them.
Putin’s attitude has been characterized in the American media as whataboutism: As soon as a journalist asked Putin a tricky question, the Russian president referred to practices in the US or elsewhere that would be the same or worse.
There is no better diplomacy than a personal conversation
President Joe Biden
He did that with the subject of cybercrime, as well as with the suppression of Russian opposition and the treatment of Alexei Navalny in his country. The name of the imprisoned opposition leader, as usual, did not pass his lips. “This gentleman has deliberately broken the law,” Putin said. Yet he spent more words on his nemesis and on the Russian opposition than he may have ever done.
Putin pointed out that after the storming of the Capitol in Washington by Trump supporters in January, 400 Americans have been arrested, who he says are being prosecuted “on unclear charges.” Biden, for his part, felt that comparing a violent stampede to peaceful demonstrations made no sense.
Putin’s tone was one of a tired schoolmaster. Floating between disinterest and mild irritation, he answered questions for over fifty minutes. Biden was a little shorter in fabric, perhaps because his lectern was set up in the blazing sun. He took off his jacket halfway through, only answering questions from American journalists, who had been preselected.
Also read: Putin leans back, Biden is on the edge of his seat
Questions about a possible prisoner exchange and about nuclear weapons, Biden had to answer with a blow: discussed, no concrete agreements made. Nuclear weapons control and the “steps that should lead to a strategic dialogue” have been discussed in detail.
Ukraine was also discussed. Biden recently appeared to give the impression of not ruling out the country’s NATO accession – a bright red line for Moscow. “It has been addressed. And there is nothing more to say about this,” Putin said in a tone that made it clear that the matter was off the table. Biden, in turn, said that the US is fully committed to Ukraine’s territorial integrity. But Putin made no mistake about it: he repeated his mantra that Kiev stands in the way of fruitful peace negotiations. As far as Belarus was concerned, views were too far apart – Biden declined to comment.
Biden was urged to calm down within Kremlink-critical circles in Russia on Wednesday. Well-known Russian author Dmitri Bykov, who recently became known that he could also have been poisoned, called on Wednesday not to act too much as a lifesaver for the Russian opposition in an open letter. „You cannot frighten him, because you [Poetin] are not. By increasing the confrontation, you only harm the Russians. You can’t beat him in a fight. Try your mercy.”
And Aleksandr Cherkasov of the human rights organization Memorial said Wednesday in a response to The Atlantic that “Biden should focus on solving security and nuclear problems” […] as if there were no imprisoned dissidents in Russia”. After all, too much Western interference confirms Kremlin propaganda that the Russian opposition is controlled by the West.
Both leaders presented their first meeting as peers as a feat of Realpolitik, summarized by Biden in response to a journalist’s question whether he trusts Putin. “This is not a matter of trust, this is a matter of well-understood self-interest.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of June 17, 2021