In a summit
of self-interest, the U.S. president tried to make Putin understand that it’s
in Russia’s interest to play nice with the United States.
More than once on Wednesday, as President Joe Biden
described his meeting with Vladimir Putin, he tried to make it sound like he
was doing the Russian leader a favor by simply giving him some good advice.
America has significant cyber capabilities, Biden pointed
out. Surely, Putin wouldn’t want to do anything on the cyber front to make his
country the recipient of U.S. wrath. Does Putin really want to improve Russia’s
trade status like he says? Maybe he shouldn’t detain American businesspeople.
And what happens if Putin and his country keep interfering in the elections of
other countries? “His credibility worldwide shrinks,” Biden said.
Of course, Biden’s message also could be read as a series of
semi-veiled threats to the long-ruling Russian autocrat. Biden, however,
insisted that while it was not a “kumbaya” meeting, there “were no threats” and
that what he was saying wasn’t simply about what works best for America.
“This is not about just our self-interest,” the U.S.
president said. “It’s about a mutual self-interest.”
Whether Putin will follow Biden’s advice is far from clear,
as is the true impact of Wednesday’s much-hyped summit between the two leaders.
Both men used words like “constructive” and “positive” to describe the roughly
four-hour gathering. But, as expected, little emerged from the talks — at least
as far as was conveyed to the public — except agreements to keep talking about
issues ranging from nuclear weapons to the war in Ukraine.
Still, that alone is a win, some analysts said, given the
poor state and downward trajectory of the U.S.-Russian relationship.
“Biden set the bar appropriately low for this meeting, and
the result — agreeing to talk about the hard but necessary issues of strategic
stability, arms control, risk reduction — more than met that bar,” said Matthew
Rojansky, director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute. “The way the two
presidents described the tone and tenor of their meeting suggests they did
exactly what needed to be done, which was to clarify where there is potential
for progress, where there is no such potential, and how each side sees things.”
The Biden-Putin meeting was held in Geneva, Switzerland,
after Biden attended a series of summits with European allies in Britain and
Belgium. Aides to the U.S. president had warned in advance not to expect any
groundbreaking agreements. They stressed that, above all, it was a chance for
Biden to tell Putin face-to-face what he wants from the relationship, and what
Russia can expect if it crosses him.
began with hand shakes, brief smiles and poses for the cameras before the doors
were closed for the private sessions. Afterward, Putin held a news
conference first, followed by a separate one from Biden.
Biden said he’d given Putin a list of 16 entities — drawn from
everything from the energy sector to water systems — that should be off limits
to cyberattacks. Biden stressed that Putin needs to take action against
cybercriminals on his soil who carry out such attacks, including the use of
ransomware, even if the Kremlin had nothing to do with it. He indicated he
hoped the two countries could come to some sort of cybersecurity arrangement.
“Responsible countries need to take action against criminals
that conduct ransomware activities on their territory,” Biden said. “So we
agreed to task experts in both our countries to work on specific understandings
about what is off-limits and to follow-up on specific cases that originate in
other countries, and that’s either of our countries.”
Biden said he’d discussed the recent ransomware attack on a
major energy pipeline in the United States, whose culprits are suspected of
ties to Russia, though not necessarily the government there.
“When I talked about the pipeline that ransomware hit in the
United States, I looked at him and said, ‘How would you feel if ransomware took
on the pipelines from your oil fields?’” Biden said of Putin. “He said ‘it
But when reporters pressed Putin on alleged Russian cyber
campaigns against the United States, he largely deflected the questions,
claiming that America was the world’s top source of cyberattacks. It was a
typical Putin tactic, using “whataboutism” to deflect blame by pointing to
also pushed on human rights in Russia, where he is accused of cracking down on
political opponents. Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, Alexei
Navalny, is currently in prison after having survived a poisoning alleged to be
the work of the Kremlin.
Putin insisted he was simply holding accountable people who
were breaking Russian laws. He said Navalny, whose name he would not utter, had
“consciously ignored the requirements of the law” when he sought treatment for
poisoning abroad. Putin did not mention Navalny had been in a coma when taken
“The gentleman in question went abroad for treatment. His
registration was not asked for,” Putin said. “As soon as he got to the
hospital, he shared his videos on the internet, but he ignored the demands of
the laws. And knowing about that, he came back to Russia. And so I take it that
he wanted consciously to break the law.”
Putin also used the occasion to slam the United States for
everything from the mistreatment of Black people to the continued operation of
the Guantanamo Bay military prison. Putin further cast the charges being
brought against the people who participated in the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection
as the U.S. persecuting people for their political beliefs.
Biden, meanwhile, played up Putin’s agreement to a
“bilateral Strategic Stability Dialogue.” Those future discussions
are intended to “lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk
reduction measures,” according to a joint statement from Biden and Putin
released by the White House. “Strategic stability” typically refers to nuclear
arms control issues.
The U.S. president noted that it could be six months or more
before there’s a sense on either side as to whether the discussions on
strategic stability yield anything. He indicated the U.S. also would keep
talking to Russia on other issues, including freeing detained Americans and the
future security of war-torn Libya, Syria and Afghanistan.
Biden and Putin also agreed that their countries’
ambassadors, both of whom had returned home in recent weeks, would resume their
posts in each other’s capitals, according to Putin. It was not clear exactly
when the envoys would go back.
Biden spent significant time at the top of his appearance
stressing his belief in the importance of protecting human rights, likely in
response to Putin’s allegations during his news conference.
Asked about Putin’s mention of the Jan. 6 rioters, Biden
dismissed the idea that there was any equivalence. “My response is what I
communicated, and that’s a ridiculous comparison,” Biden said, arguing that the
rioters damaged the Capitol and caused the death of a security official.
When asked what would happen if Navalny were to die in
prison, Biden was blunt. “I made it clear to [Putin] that I believe the
consequences of that would be devastating for Russia,” Biden said.
Those devastating consequences, Biden explained, would
include an erosion of Russia’s reputation on the global stage as other nations
realize that, whether through poisoning dissidents or other means, Moscow won’t
abide by international norms.
“It’s about their ability to influence other nations in a
positive way,” Biden said of Russia.
Biden noted that when it came to trade, “I don’t have any
problem with doing business with Russia as long as we do it based on the
international norms. It’s in our interest to see the Russian people do well
economically.” But he alluded to the controversial case of Michael Calvey, an American investor
whom Russia had put under house arrest, as the type of situation that damages
Russia’s ability to engage in trade.
“American businessmen, they are not ready to show up,” Biden
said. “They don’t want to hang around in Moscow.”
Putin had a different view on this, arguing that there’s
tremendous interest from U.S. business leaders in Russia, but that U.S.
sanctions on Russia were damaging Americans’ ability to do business there.
Earlier this year, when asked if he thought Putin was a
“killer,” Biden agreed with that description. In his news conference, Putin
said he was satisfied with an explanation Biden gave of what he had meant. When
Biden was asked to share his side during his news conference, he declined.
“He’s satisfied,” Biden said of Putin. “Why would I bring it
“I’m not confident he’s going to change his behavior.
What the hell? What do you do all the time?” the president told one
reporter. (He later apologized to the press pool for being “a wise guy.”)
Even as he described trying to convince Putin that it was in
his own interest to take a different approach to Washington, Biden nonetheless
stressed that he would never take Putin’s word for it.
“This is not about trust,” Biden said. “This is about
self-interest and verification of self-interest.”
Overall, Biden expressed confidence in his performance
Wednesday. “I did what I came to do,” he said.
* Nahal Toosi covers
foreign policy and national security for POLITICO. Her work has taken her from
the halls of the U.S. State Department to refugee camps in Asia. In 2019, Toosi
was a finalist for the National Magazine Award in reporting for her story on the plight of Rohingya Muslims in Bangladesh and