Summit with a 'killer': What to expect out of Biden's meeting with Putin

·National Security Correspondent
·5-min read

The upcoming summit between President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin represents a major diplomatic test for the Biden administration. The June 16 meeting in the Swiss lakeside city of Geneva — an enduring symbol of political neutrality — will unfold amid frigid relations between the two nuclear superpowers. Antagonism between Washington and Moscow is at its worst in decades, with both sides harboring deep reservoirs of distrust over the other’s intentions and activities abroad.

The Biden-Putin meeting will be the capstone of Biden’s first overseas trip and will follow a meeting of the leaders of seven wealthy industrialized democracies in the United Kingdom and a NATO summit in Brussels. In Geneva, Biden and Putin will also likely discuss some of the geopolitical schisms bedeviling U.S.-Russia relations, including Ukraine, where Moscow is backing separatists in the eastern part of that country; Syria, where Russia has helped prop up the Assad regime; and Belarus, where a government led by a Putin ally recently forced an international flight to land and seized a dissident on board. There’s also the lingering case of Paul Whelan, an American and former U.S. Marine who has been imprisoned in Russia since December 2018.

American citizen Paul Whelan attends a sentencing hearing in June 2020, at the Moscow City Court on charges of espionage against Russia. (Anton Novoderezhkin\TASS via Getty Images)
American citizen Paul Whelan attends a sentencing hearing in June 2020, at the Moscow City Court on charges of espionage against Russia. (Anton Novoderezhkin\TASS via Getty Images)

There’s a long history of U.S. presidents meeting with their Russian counterparts in neutral European locations. The first meeting between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev took place in Geneva in 1985; this summit paved the way for a meeting in Reykjavík, Iceland, the following year. Much more recently, in 2018, President Donald Trump met with Putin in Helsinki, a summit that included Trump’s controversial remarks at a joint press conference during which he denigrated the U.S. intelligence community while standing next to the Kremlin leader.

In the beginning of their administrations, past U.S. presidents have tried to find greater common ground with Putin in areas like nuclear weapons and terrorism. Speaking about the Russian leader, President George W. Bush famously said after a 2001 meeting that he was “able to get a sense of [Putin’s] soul,” and the first Obama administration tried to “reset” diplomatic relations between the two countries. But the Biden administration — and, indeed, the Kremlin — are making sure to temper expectations this time around.

Still, Biden and Putin are expected to discuss big-picture issues at the summit, like the overall tenor of U.S.-Russia relations; the coronavirus pandemic; and how to potentially extend the New START treaty, which is the sole remaining nuclear nonproliferation agreement between Moscow and Washington. Neither country expects a diplomatic breakthrough in Geneva, however.

Indeed, Biden has become increasingly skeptical of the Russian leader over the years. By 2011, as vice president, Biden told Putin at an in-person meeting that — contrary to Bush — he thought the Russian leader didn’t even have a soul. Putin then told Biden, “We understand one another,” according to an account Biden provided the New Yorker in 2014.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with then U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during their meeting in Moscow March 10, 2011. (Alexander Natruskin/Reuters)
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with then U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during their meeting in Moscow March 10, 2011. (Alexander Natruskin/Reuters)

And in an interview this March, Biden called Putin a “killer,” infuriating the Kremlin. Putin then ordered the Russian ambassador to Washington recalled back to Moscow, and requested that the U.S. ambassador to Russia leave the country as well.

Then, in April, the Biden administration announced it was expelling 10 Russian diplomats — almost certainly spies under diplomatic cover — in retaliation for the massive SolarWinds hacking campaign that U.S. intelligence agencies have linked to Russia. The breach compromised at least nine federal agencies and 100 companies.

The Biden administration also simultaneously levied sanctions against dozens of Russian companies and individuals, including half a dozen Russian cybersecurity firms linked to Moscow’s espionage apparatus. The U.S. also sanctioned entities it identified as responsible for aiding in Moscow’s 2016 and 2020 election interference schemes, which is another subject Biden is likely to bring up in Geneva.

Additionally, in May, the Biden administration also sanctioned Russian companies and ships involved in building a natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany, which U.S. officials believe will provide Moscow with additional leverage to coerce and intimidate European allies.

Human rights — and particularly the health of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny — are another flashpoint in U.S.-Russia relations. In his Memorial Day address, Biden previewed the message his administration will likely take on the subject at the summit, saying that he “will be making it clear that we will not — we will not — stand by and let [Putin] abuse those rights.”

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny looks at photographers standing in the Babuskinsky District Court in Moscow, Russia on Feb. 20, 2021. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny looks at photographers standing in the Babuskinsky District Court in Moscow, Russia on Feb. 20, 2021. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

Still, for the administration’s relatively antagonistic posture, it was Biden himself who, on his second call as president with Putin, broached the subject of a U.S.-Russia summit. Some Republicans, and even prominent Democrats, have criticized the move. Republican Sen. Ben Sasse slammed it as “rewarding” Putin’s malign behavior, according to the Associated Press. The U.S. should be “treating Putin like a gangster who fears his own people,” said Sasse.

Instead, said the Nebraska senator, the U.S. is “legitimizing his actions with a summit.”

Whether that’s the case or not, Biden will be under pressure to show if not concrete results from the summit, then at least that he can stand up to Putin.

Cover thumbnail photo illustration Yahoo News; photos: AP(2), Getty Images.

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