GENEVA – A highly anticipated first summit between President Biden and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia ended early Wednesday and has been described by both sides as a series of polite but persistently stated disagreements over which country is the greater force of global disruption.
After about three hours of conversation, the two leaders showed up separately and offered each other professional respect, like two seasoned boxers describing each other’s skills. Both expressed a desire for a better relationship but did not announce any dramatic measures to halt the downward spiral that has already sparked the worst US-Russian tensions since the Cold War.
In dueling press conferences on the shores of Lake Geneva, a traditional venue for two of the world’s most powerful antagonists to discuss their differences, the two leaders pledged to form working groups to address pressing issues, starting with arms control and proliferation Cyberattacks. They agreed to send ambassadors to each other’s capitals, Putin said, expressing interest in working in some areas of common interest, from the Arctic to Afghanistan.
“There has been no hostilities,” Putin said of the meeting.
Mr Biden stated, “I did what I came to do,” including a series of warnings and red lines for the Russian leader that he insisted were not “threats”.
Mr Biden expressed himself with a modest optimism that America has reestablished its alliances with Europe and made Mr Putin more cautious about actions deemed to be directed against American interests.
“I think the last thing he wants now is a cold war,” Biden said at his press conference, describing Putin as the struggling leader of a declining economy who was concerned about the growth of an expansionist, aggressive China’s border .
But Mr Biden also said he gave the Russian leader a list of 16 examples of “critical infrastructures” and made it clear that “we have significant cyber capabilities” and would react “in a cyber way” if attacked . ”
Mr Biden said it did. given no exaggeration and no talk of military intervention in their exchanges, which he termed “simple claims”. But his warning that an acceleration in Russian cyber operations would receive a response in kind could signal a marked escalation in the daily cyber conflict currently taking place between major and minor powers, including China, Iran and North Korea.
American officials have generally held back from major cyber operations against Russia because they feared they would not be able to control the escalation of strikes and counterattacks. Although Mr Biden made a crash test to reduce the vulnerability of American assets, from pipelines to power plants, it is an attempt that will take years and will never protect any weakness.
For his part, Mr Putin denied that Russia was responsible for the numerous attacks on the United States. His rejection seemed to encompass both the sophisticated attacks like SolarWinds that were revealed last December and that American officials said were launched by Russia’s top intelligence agencies, as well as ransomware attacks, according to Mr Biden, by criminals in Russian Ground.
At his press conference, Putin turned the allegations against Washington back, claiming that the United States was responsible for a far greater number of malicious cyber campaigns than Russia.
Mr Putin then refused to accept any responsibility for human rights abuses or the invasion of parts of Ukraine, making claims that he wanted better relations with the United States but no assurances that he intended to change Russia’s behavior.
When asked about the imprisonment of political rivals such as Aleksei A. Navalny, Putin said Mr Navalny had broken the law. The Russian leader also made a well-known what-aboutism, referring to the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, then adding, “What about Guantánamo?” A reference to the internment camp where the United States is still one small number of prisoners torn from the battlefields in counterterrorism operations.
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By the end of the day, it was clear that the two men had settled few of their longstanding differences and had sent several of them to working groups of senior officials, which Mr Biden said would have six to twelve months to report back.
Mr Biden referred to the “Strategic Stability Dialog”, which focused on new nuclear weapons that largely fall outside of the categories currently covered by the few remaining non-proliferation treaties, as the first test of Mr Putin’s seriousness.
The leaders also issued a joint statement promising to hold arms control talks, pledging that “a nuclear war cannot and must never be won”. It was a statement going back 36 years to a 1985 meeting between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, also in Geneva.
But the contrasts between this session and this spoke volumes. Reagan famously called the Soviet Union the “Empire of Evil,” but he and Gorbachev spent hours talking indoors and outdoors, eating together, and trying to get to know each other. In the hours leading up to Mr Biden’s meeting with Mr Putin, his staff made it clear that they would not break bread and that the meetings would be formal.
Although it was a beautiful day and they met on a former estate with paths leading to the lake, they never explored the gardens or left the impression that they were trying to get to know each other. It was purely business, said Mr. Biden. It ended an hour earlier than administrators expected.
The meeting was conducted with delicate choreography, apparently designed to avoid any camaraderie. Mr Putin was the first to arrive directly from the airport and was greeted on the red carpet in front of a lake villa by President Guy Parmelin of Switzerland. About 15 minutes later, Mr. Biden arrived in his motorcade, shook hands with Mr. Parmelin and waved to the reporters.
The Federal President welcomed the two heads of state and wished them “a fruitful dialogue in the interests of your two countries and the whole world”. Then he stepped aside and allowed Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin to approach, smiling and shaking hands.
Mr Biden seemed energized from the encounter, once taking off his jacket while answering a question at his press conference and putting on his signature sunglasses to signal that he was ready to complete a week-long trip around Europe and to To go home. Still, he stayed in the press conference area for a few minutes, answering loud questions.
But at the end of the day it was unclear whether everything he saw or heard led to a revision of his views on Mr Putin. Mr Biden declined to say whether he would still refer to the Russian leader as a “murderer”, arguing that none of the conversations marked the beginning of a friendship.
“This is not about trust,” he said. “This is about self-interest and self-interest verification.”
While the leaders maintained their widely divergent worldviews, there were moments in their separate press conferences when they appeared surprisingly in sync. Mr Putin called Mr Biden “constructive, balanced and experienced” and said he wanted agreements on “rules of conduct” on sensitive issues such as nuclear weapons and cybersecurity – an echo of the hopes of American officials, “guard rails” for US-Russian relations.
“I think we can agree on all of this,” Putin said. “At least that’s how I feel, given the outcome of our meeting with President Biden.”
Cyber experts expressed some skepticism, noting that Russia had often advocated cyber “conventions” that would give it greater control over the Internet – and thus over its use by dissidents – while demanding absolute proof that that Russian actors were involved in malicious activity.
Mr Putin also left the door open to deeper engagement with Washington than the Kremlin had been willing to entertain in recent years. On issues beyond cybersecurity and nuclear weapons, including diplomatic squabbles and even prisoner exchanges, Putin said he was ready to speak with the United States and was unusually optimistic about the possibility of getting results.
“If you ignore the pesky what-aboutism, there have been some real results,” said Samuel Charap, a senior political scientist at RAND Corporation in Arlington, Virginia. “Russia is not used to confessing its sins and asking for forgiveness. Especially under Putin. “
In Mr Charap’s view, the most important results were the agreement on the US-Russian dialogue on strategic stability and cybersecurity and the agreement that US and Russian ambassadors return to their posts in Moscow and Washington. Mr Putin also said there was “potential for compromise” on the issue of several Americans detained in Russia and Russians detained in the United States.
To announce his renewed readiness to talk – while acknowledging the uncertainty that lies ahead – Mr Putin quoted from Russian literature.
“Leo Tolstoy once said: ‘There is no such thing as happiness in life – there is only a glimmer of it,'” Putin said. “I think there can be no family trust in this situation. But I think we saw some glimmer. “