With a firm handshake and a smile, U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin began their highly anticipated summit in Switzerland on Wednesday. The meetings were divided into two sections with the staff of both world leaders joining them in the room. After three hours, both men emerged and spoke to the media at separate press conferences to give their own spin on how things went.
Once the press conferences were over, both men went their separate ways home and the entire world was left wondering where the relations between the United States and Russia stood.
In all honesty, things seemed to be pretty much the same and that is something Biden made clear in the weeks leading up to the meeting. The American President set a very low bar for the first face-to-face meeting with Putin, the smallest thing such as Putin being tardy, would amount to a win.
Despite having a history of making American leaders wait, Putin arrived early and showed up on time to the summit. The White House expected the meeting to last around five hours but it ended up being around three. Biden commented later on that it was still enough time to touch on the major issues he wanted to bring up.
Here are five key takeaways from the Biden-Putin summit:
He’s not Trump
The White House had one main goal for Biden coming into Wednesday’s meeting: avoid the disaster that was Helsinki in 2018.
That is when former President Donald Trump met with Putin for over two hours in private and held a joint press conference with the Russian leader, saying he trusts him over U.S. intelligence regarding Russia’s role in the hacking of the 2016 election.
Biden was open about what issues he wanted to confront Putin on, from election meddling, human rights, and the recent cyberattacks on major U.S. industries and government agencies. All those are issues Trump deflected and ignored when he met with the Russian leader or when the media would bring up Putin.
There was one key similarity, though. Trump infamously did not like the media questioning him, often referring to negative stories about him and his administration as “fake news”. At the end of Biden’s news conference, he was visibly upset with CNN’s Kaitlan Collins for the way she worded a question.
I’m not confident he’ll change his behaviour. “What the hell – what do you do all the time? When did I say I was confident?” he shot back. “If you don’t understand that, you’re in the wrong business.”
He later apologized to Collins for the tone he used. While it was not as toxic or severe as Trump’s treatment of the media, I did not expect that from Biden. But I should note that he did not use the word “confident” as she had suggested he did.
“I shouldn’t have been such a wise guy,” Biden said.
Coming into the meeting, the Biden administration downplayed any hope of the two leaders finding any common ground on the major issues or agreeing on much. However, there was progress made on a few fronts.
Biden and Putin agreed to return ambassadors to their overseas posts after being pressured to do so in April following Biden placing heavy sanctions on Russia and expelled Russian diplomats in response to election interference and cyberattacks. The two countries also agreed to begin strategic stability talks around nuclear arms control.
Biden stated after the meeting that he and Putin “discussed in detail the next steps our countries need to take on arms control measures – the steps we need to take to reduce the risk of unintended conflict.”
However, the two men did not reach an agreement on a possible prisoner swap. Russia is currently holding two former U.S. Marines in prison. Trevor Reed was sentenced to nine years in prison a year ago and was diagnosed with Covid-19 last month. However, to this day, his family is struggling to get updates on his condition. The other Marine is Paul Whelan, who was sentenced to 16 years in prison last year.
In his press conference after the meeting, Putin’s response was not surprising. Putin praised Biden, describing him as a “balanced and professional man, and it’s clear that he’s very experienced,” saying there was no hostility between the two men as they sat down to get the meeting started after posing for a traditional photo op.
From there, it was deflection after deflection for the Russian leader. Putin was asked by several reporters about Russia’s role in election interference, cyberattacks, aggression against Ukraine and human rights violations. Instead, he blamed the corruption in Washington on the United States, saying America is at fault for the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Putin did not utter the name of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was believed to be poisoned by the Russian government. ABC News reporter Rachel Scott pressed Putin twice on this and both times he deflected and did not answer her question.
Entering Wednesday’s meeting, Biden made it clear that cyberattacks, including the recent ransomware hacks, would be a major part of his discussion with Putin.
Biden wanted to let Putin know just how seriously the United States views cybercrime, telling the Russian leader the U.S. has “significant cyber capability” and will respond to any future hacks or cyberattacks.
“He knows it. He doesn’t know exactly what it is, but he knows it’s significant,” Biden said. “If in fact, they violate his basic norms, we will respond.”
Pressuring on human rights
Lastly, Biden said he would continue to call out Russia for human rights violations. He particularly brought up Navalny and what would happen if he died in prison, saying the consequences would be “devastating” for Russia.
Biden believes human rights are core to America’s values, regardless of who the president is and what country he is meeting with.
Biden noted that “It’s not about just going after Russia when they violate human rights; it’s about who we are. How could I be the President of the United States of America and not speak out against the violation of human rights?”