The first Biden-Putin summit didn’t produce much, but something is better than nothing—and at this point in Russian-American relations, it’s as much as one could expect.
As a result of the meeting, the two sides will soon begin formal talks on “strategic stability” and cybersecurity. Meanwhile, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow and the Russian ambassador to Washington—both of whom had been called home near the start of Biden’s presidency—will return to their posts. And discussions will also be held on humanitarian assistance to Syria, peace in Afghanistan, and ensuring that Iran doesn’t obtain nuclear weapons.
That’s about all. And neither president seemed surprised.
“There was a lot of hype around this meeting, but it was pretty straightforward,” President Joe Biden said at his post-summit press conference, which he held after Russian President Vladimir Putin held his own solo press conference.
Biden outlined three reasons for holding the meeting, which occurred in Geneva at the end of a weeklong trip that took him to allied summits with the European Union, the G-7, and NATO. First, he has long felt that there is “no substitute for face-to-face dialogue among leaders.” Second, he and Putin, as possessors of nuclear arsenals that could destroy the world, “share a unique responsibility” to maintain “stable and predictable” relations. Third, “we should be able to cooperate when it’s in our mutual interests,” while where our interests differ, Biden wanted Putin to “understand why I say what I say and do what I do.”
Hence, the meeting—which, at 2½ hours, lasted about half as long as officials had predicted. But as Biden and Putin both said afterward, it’s rare when presidents spend even that long in a serious, detailed discussion of world issues.
In the first 90 minutes, just the two presidents spoke with each other, accompanied only by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and their translators. In the final hour, the group expanded to include several aides, including Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of staff of the Russian armed forces. (The U.S. side included State Department and National Security Council officials but no one from the Pentagon.) Biden explained that since he and Putin had covered so much in their face-to-face, the larger group found itself with little to discuss.
That may be, but it also indicates that no one was ready or willing to discuss much beyond the bare outlines of the issues where they might cooperate and other issues where they should try to keep their differences from erupting into conflict.
It is no small thing, though, that they were talking at all. Before Wednesday’s meeting, relations had deteriorated to the point where there were almost no forums for heading off crises or managing routine diplomacy. Now there are.
Biden said, “There’s a genuine prospect of significantly improving relations between our countries without giving up a single thing in terms of our interests and values”—but he made no rosy projections on whether that happens. “We’ll find out in the next six months or a year whether we have a strategic dialogue that matters. […] We’ll be able to ask, ‘The things we tried to work out, did they work out? Are we closer to strategic stability talks and progress?’ ” That, he said, will be the “test” of whether this summit was an important moment or a blip.
In his press conference, Putin was complimentary to Biden, calling him “very constructive, very balanced, very experienced.” But the Russian president and former KGB officer indulged in old-school Moscow rhetoric as well. Asked about his practice of jailing or murdering political opponents, he brought up Guantánamo and torture in prisons around the world. He likened the imprisoned opposition activist Alexei Navalny (whose name he wouldn’t utter) to the insurrectionists who raided the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Asked about cyberattacks, he replied that the United States has a huge cyberoffensive program (true) and that Russia hardly has any such program at all (false).
Biden said that he raised the possibility of holding talks on outlawing cyberattacks against 16 areas of “critical infrastructure,” including energy pipelines and water supply. This is an idea that’s been tossed around for several years, but given Putin’s denial of even the most basic facts about Russian cyberoffensives, such talks—if they take place—aren’t likely to be fruitful.
The fact is, Biden doesn’t want to spend much time on Russia. He is more concerned about staving off China as a rising adversary—and about unifying Asian and European allies, in part for its own sake, in part to demonstrate the power and unity of democracies in the face of authoritarian threats and challenges.
Still, Russia, though a weakened power, was too strong—and, in recent years, too belligerent—to ignore. Something had to be done about its armed aggression on the Ukraine border, its efforts to splinter the Western alliance, and its cyberattacks on critical infrastructure. Biden’s summits this past week in Europe at least produced rallying cries on those issues. A lengthy, reportedly positive meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may have been a particularly potent counter to Putin’s recent campaign to lure him away from NATO—where he has alienated many members with his authoritarian ways—into an alliance with Moscow.
Now with the Geneva summit, however hyped, Biden has restated the point in person and laid the groundwork for—well, it’s not clear for what: possibly future cooperation, possibly mere points of contact to control some future crisis before it gets out of hand. On Tuesday, the day before the summit, I wrote that if Biden and Putin were merely “to announce the beginning of talks about something, anything, that would be progress enough.” And so, it was progress enough.