News & Politics

Biden and Putin in Tense Meeting in Geneva

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin appeared tense and uncomfortable in their first of two bilateral meetings today as the two leaders are expected to butt heads on everything from cybercrime to human rights.

Both sides sought to downplay the importance of the meeting in their pre-summit spin. Indeed, no big issues will be resolved, no memorandums of understanding will be agreed to. Relations between the two powers are at a post-Cold War low and that’s not expected to change in Geneva.

Biden is expected to propagandize against Putin by warning him against any more election interference, demanding he not murder his political opponents, and telling him to keep his grubby hands off of eastern Europe.

Putin is expected to bring up human rights in the U.S. by pointing to last summer’s anti-police riots. You’d never see anything like that in Russia, Putin will probably say. This is because demonstrations against his regime have been all but outlawed.

The issues surrounding ransomware and cybercrime will be discussed. Putin will say he can’t do anything about it, even though he and his security services profit from it. He may propose a swap of cybercriminals with Biden but that’s not expected to go anywhere.

Other points of contention between the two countries include Russia’s continued interference in Ukraine, pressure on NATO countries like Poland, Putin’s support for Iran and Syria, and the Russian president’s ongoing support of Russian nationalist groups in regions formerly ruled by the old Soviet Union.

Related: Russian Diplomat Warns of ‘Uncomfortable Signals’ Ahead of Biden-Putin Summit

“I hope our meeting will be productive,” Putin said at the beginning of the meeting at an 18th-century villa in a park overlooking Lake Geneva. He thanked the U.S. president for initiating the talks and noted that issues between the nations have accumulated.

“It is always better to meet face to face,” Biden said.

Wall Street Journal:

In a sign of the tensions between the two countries, Russian and U.S. reporters clashed outside the villa, with Russian media and security officials pushing U.S. reporters and jostling for position. The scene devolved into a shouting match as the journalists fought to enter the meeting.

Not exactly Navy SEALs versus Spetsnaz.

Throughout his first visit overseas as president, meeting Group of Seven and European leaders and the U.S.’s partners at NATO, Mr. Biden has signaled that he wants to show that the U.S. and its allies won’t tolerate what it regards as provocative actions by the Kremlin and will counter the growing influence of autocratic powers.

Mr. Putin has also flagged his interest in pursuing a dialogue with Mr. Biden, describing the American president as a more predictable leader than his predecessor, but has made clear that he won’t be cowed.

No doubt Biden will stamp his little foot and tell Putin to cut it out. Outside of that, there’s very little that he can do.

Putin doesn’t care what Biden or the West thinks of him. Sanctions have been ineffective. Warnings and veiled threats have been laughed off by the former KGB agent. It would be completely in character for Putin to have the dissident Alexei Navalny, currently in a Russian prison, die while Biden was meeting with him.

As an exclamation point to the talks, the Russian Navy is conducting the largest exercises in the Pacific since the end of the Cold War.

Mr. Biden has faced criticism from some Senate Republicans for giving Mr. Putin what they say is an undeserved audience during his first trip as U.S. president, pointing to a spate of cyberattacks from Russia-based hackers, the Kremlin’s treatment of its political opponents and a military buildup on the borders of Ukraine.

Senior Biden administration officials have been working to carefully orchestrate the event to ensure that it doesn’t further elevate Mr. Putin on the world stage and the U.S. president has been prepping for the meeting for days, U.S. officials said. Mr. Biden’s aides have studied how Mr. Putin interacted with past presidents and they have consulted U.S. experts on Russia who have served under presidents of both main political parties.

What are they going to do? Tell reporters not to point their cameras at Putin? Order journalists, not to write down anything he says? When the two leaders are sitting face to face, how does that not “elevate” Putin on the world stage?

If they didn’t want to make Putin look good, they should have gone home.

Compared to the doddering Biden, Putin looks hale and healthy. Perhaps it’s Putin who should have worried about “elevating” Biden “on the world stage.”