Joe Biden faces the biggest diplomatic test of his presidency as he sits down with ‘worthy opponent’

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President Joe Biden finally sits down with Vladimir Putin for their first presidential summit today – meeting in a locked-down Geneva as both men take each other’s measure and assess whether there is a way to put the relationship between the U.S. and Russia on a more stable course. 

The city, which warmly welcomed the leaders by placing U.S. and Russian flags along the shores of Lake Geneva, has ratcheted up security – with special forces patrolling Lake Geneva by sea, heavily armed police, and the usual retinue of motorcades to ferry both men, who are staying in separate hotels nearby each other.

Putin is set to arrive first at the summit venue in an event that is both choreographed in its broad outlines and adjusted on the fly, some areas left entirely open – including the food.

President Joe Biden sits down with Russian President Vladimir Putin for two meetings on Wednesday

Putin is known for seeking to turn western complaints about human rights and rule of law against his critics. He was set to arrive in Geneva Wednesday

Putin is known for seeking to turn western complaints about human rights and rule of law against his critics. He was set to arrive in Geneva Wednesday

Putin is known for seeking to turn western complaints about human rights and rule of law against his critics. He was set to arrive in Geneva Wednesday

‘No breaking of bread,’ quipped a senior official when asked about the lack of a set meal. 

But the official allowed, ‘I presume that the principals and the participants can ask for some water or coffee or tea …’ The summit format also allowed for breaks to be determined.

Biden will arrive next, traveling in ‘the Beast’ for the short drive from his hotel.

Each man will meet separately with Swiss President Guy Parmelin, whose central role will be to break the ice and get things started on a good footing.

Then, the three men will be pictured together, but only Parmelin is scheduled to speak – a move that could at least forestall any early pyrotechnics.

But there will be another chance to glimpse the two men together in a small meeting, with only the two leaders, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, and notetakers and translators present.

The summit begins amid tight security

The summit begins amid tight security

The summit begins amid tight security

Pleasure boaters on Lake Geneva have been replaced by armed special forces

Pleasure boaters on Lake Geneva have been replaced by armed special forces

Pleasure boaters on Lake Geneva have been replaced by armed special forces

The two leaders will meet at the Villa La Grange, which overlooks Lake Geneva

The two leaders will meet at the Villa La Grange, which overlooks Lake Geneva

The two leaders will meet at the Villa La Grange, which overlooks Lake Geneva

The issues Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin want to raise at their summit

Russian-backed election interference

Russia harboring ransomware hackers

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny

Other political prisoners

Potential prisoner swap for jailed Americans

Press freedoms 

COVID-19 and vaccines 

Resumption of ambassadors

Nuclear arms agreements

Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine

Recent actions in Belarus

U.S. sanctions to punish Russia

Nord Stream 2 pipeline

Climate change

Nato expansion 

Syria and Bashar al-Assad

Afghanistan

Counterterrorism 

 

A larger meeting will have five staff members each – and Biden is set to hold a press conference after the estimated five hours of meetings.

Biden will get to put his spin on the day with a full press conference with the U.S. and international press near the bank of Lake Geneva. But it’s time was not firmly set.

Putin, too, is certain to want to put his spin on events, but hasn’t said how he will do it when, or where.

He has kept up a busy schedule of interviews in the days leading up to the summit. 

The relationship has featured intense comments, and Biden agreed with Putin’s assessment that national relations were at a ‘low point.’

Biden says he once told Putin he had ‘no soul.’ He caused an uproar when he agreed Putin was a ‘killer.’

But this week he also called him ‘bright’ and ‘tough,’ as well as a ‘worthy adversary.’

He wants to see if there is a way to at least establish ‘stability and predictability’ in U.S.-Russia relations.

‘We should decide where it’s in our mutual interest, in the interest of the world, to cooperate, and see if we can do that,’ Biden said this week. ‘And the areas where we don’t agree, make it clear what the red lines are.” 

Putin described Biden with the double-edged ‘career man’ label, saying he ‘spent virtually his entire adulthood in politics.’

Putin said the remark this week by way of contrast with former President Trump, who he met at the infamous Helsinki summit – presenting Trump with a soccer ball and standing alongside Trump while he accepted Putin’s denials of election interference in 2016. 

Biden has limited his comments on the issues he would raise. But he and his aides have said he will bring up ransomware, hacking, election interference, Ukraine, press freedoms, opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and human rights.

Megaphone diplomacy before the Biden-Putin summit: What pair have said about each other in the build-up

PUTIN 

In a wide-ranging interview with NBC, the Russian president was defiant in his response to numerous allegations against him, including cyber attacks and election meddling.

The Russian president called allegations he was involved in hacks that crippled the US ‘farical’ 

He said he was ‘surprised’ he hadn’t been accused yet of sparking the Black Lives Matter movement.

He also compared the arrest of Trump supporters to the jailing and ‘political persecution’ of  Alexi Navalny. Putin also said he would not guarantee that his political opponent will ever leave jail. 

Responding to Biden calling him a ‘killer’ back in March, Putin laughed at the claims. 

When discussing a potential prisoner swap with two US Marines and Russians imprisoned in the US, he said ‘sure thing’. 

 BIDEN

On Monday, Biden called Putin ‘bright and tough’ and insisted he was a ‘worthy adversary’ ahead of the summit on Wednesday.

The US president vowed to respond ‘in kind’ to any aggression from Moscow and promised to take Putin to task on alleged hacking by Russian-backed  actors and human rights abuses.

During a press conference in NATO he said: ‘I’m laughing too’ when asked if he still thought Putin was a ‘killer’.

He also said NATO leaders had ‘thanked’ him for meeting with Putin and brushed off any claims it was too early in his presidency for such a high-profile summit. 

The Navalny issue is a particularly thorny one.  To the U.S. it is a core rule of law issue. Biden wants to send a message to dissidents and other opposition figures, but it is an area where it will be challenging to make progress.

‘Navalny’s death would be another indication of Russia has little or no intention of abiding by basic fundamental human rights. It would be a tragedy,’ Biden said this week when asked what it would mean should he die in prison.

‘We should not lose sight of the fact that Navalny is the most famous of several hundred political prisoners,’ said Matthew Rojansky, director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute in Washington. He said Biden may want to raise the question of Russia’s political prisoners more broadly. 

He said the U.S. should hold Putin to international standards and its own commitments as well as Russia’s own constitution. ‘We should try to hold them to those standards. The problem is the regime views these behaviors as essential to its survival. They’re not things we can convince them that they should reverse,’ he noted.’

If Biden didn’t already know it, he should be prepared for Putin trying to turn the tables on him by bringing up domestic U.S. politics. In recent days he has spoken about the prosecution of Capitol rioters while discoursing on Black Lives Matter protests, a go-to tactics when outsiders seek to call attention to stifling of internal dissent or lack of press freedoms. 

Biden also must decide how direct he wants to be when he warns Russia about ransomware attacks the U.S. believes come from its soil, even if not government-run operations. 

Biden said this week: ‘I’m going to make clear to President Putin that there are areas where we can cooperate if he chooses. 

And if he chooses not to cooperate and acts in a way that he has in the past relative to cybersecurity and some other activities, then we will respond. We will respond in kind.’ 

The two men are set to meet in Geneva at the Villa de la Grange, a building with a long history that is located near the luxury hotel where Biden is staying. With its stocked Empire bookcases, Trompe l’oeil ceiling details, and colorful rose garden, the building and grounds offers bountiful opportunities for photo-ops and small talk. 

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