Biden, Putin Begin First Summit as U.S.-Russia Tensions Rise

  •  Meeting in Geneva to last more than four hours, officials say
  •  Biden opens meeting by calling U.S., Russia ‘two great powers’

Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin began a summit Wednesday in the Swiss city of Geneva with warm words, as they sought to dial back tensions between the two former Cold War adversaries that have reached the highest level in years.

The meeting with Putin, the first of Biden’s presidency, may last for more than four hours including talks with a broader group of officials. Both Russian and U.S. officials kept expectations low for the outcome, with the leaders looking to agree on a new round of arms-control negotiations and restoring diplomatic links severed in recent years.

“I think it’s always better to meet face to face, try to determine where we have mutual interest, cooperate, and where we don’t, establish a predictable and rational” path forward, Biden told Putin. “Two great powers,” the U.S. president added.

Putin thanked Biden for taking the initiative to propose the session. “I know you’ve had a long trip, a lot of work. Nonetheless, a lot of questions have accumulated in Russian-American relations that require discussion at the highest level and I hope our meeting will be productive,” he said.

Biden and Putin began speaking before U.S. reporters had entered the bookshelf-lined room where they began their meeting at the Villa La Grange in Geneva, and both men smiled as journalists scuffled with one another and with Putin’s security as they tried to cover the remarks. The scrum drowned out some of the leaders’ comments.

Legendary for keeping people waiting, Putin arrived for Wednesday’s talks on schedule. The first session of their summit, in which Biden and Putin met with only their top diplomats, Sergei Lavrov and Antony Blinken, and translators, concluded after about 93 minutes, according to a White House official.

A larger meeting with more staff will follow, and then each leader will hold separate news conferences, beginning with Putin.

Biden plans to raise with Putin the plight of two former U.S. Marines who are in jail in Moscow, according to people familiar with the discussions. Paul Whelan was convicted on espionage charges last year and Trevor Reed was found guilty of assaulting two police officers in 2019. U.S. officials have strongly criticized both convictions as politically motivated. Putin said this week Russia might be willing to consider swapping them for its nationals held in U.S. prisons.

The U.S. president also plans to stress the need for humanitarian assistance to Syria and make the case that international humanitarian crossings must be permitted, the people said.

Long Agenda

The two men last met in 2011, when Biden, then vice president, told Putin not to run again after more than a decade at the helm in Russia. Since then, the U.S. has imposed round after round of sanctions in retaliation for acts including Russia’s annexation of Crimea, interference in U.S. elections, cyberattacks and the killings of opposition leaders and journalists.

Putin has been undeterred, remaining an obstacle to U.S. foreign policy in eastern Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere.

“I’m not looking for conflict with Russia,” Biden said at a news conference following a NATO summit on Monday. But he said he’ll convey to Putin that the U.S. will respond “if Russia continues these harmful activities. And we will not fail to defend the transatlantic alliance or stand up for democratic values.”

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The leaders are expected to discuss a renewal of the New START nuclear arms pact that is set to expire in 2026, according to White House officials who briefed reporters traveling with Biden on Tuesday. The U.S. president believes human rights and Putin’s crackdown on jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s political movement are on the table for talks, though Putin has said they are internal issues.

Putin ignored questions U.S. reporters shouted at him about Navalny before the first session of the summit.

From left, Antony Blinken, Joe Biden, Vladimir Putin and Sergei Lavrov at the Villa La Grange, in Geneva on June 16.
Photographer: /AFP/Getty Images

“Putin is always clear about laying out the ‘red lines’ for Russia and especially will be in the discussion today, which won’t be easy,” Peskov said, highlighting Biden’s suggestion that Ukraine might someday join NATO.

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