WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden and Russia’s Vladimir Putin agreed Tuesday to meet next month in Geneva, a face-to-face encounter the White House hopes will help bring some predictability to a fraught relationship that’s only worsened in the first months of the Democratic administration.
The White House confirmed details of the summit on Tuesday in a statement by White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki:
“President Biden will meet with President Putin in Geneva, Switzerland on June 16, 2021. The leaders will discuss the full range of pressing issues, as we seek to restore predictability and stability to the U.S.-Russia relationship.”
The scheduled meeting is being tacked on to the end of Biden’s first international trip as president next month when he visits Britain for a meeting of Group of Seven leaders and Brussels for the NATO summit.
Biden first proposed a summit in a call with Putin in April as his administration prepared to levy sanctions against Russian officials for the second time during the first three months of his presidency.
The agenda is expected to include discussion of Russian action in neighboring Ukraine, this week’s forced diversion of a Lithuania-bound flight by Russian-ally Belarus, efforts by both nations to stem the coronavirus pandemic and more. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said no preconditions were set for the meeting.
The Kremlin, for its part, said the presidents will discuss “the current state and prospects of Russian-U.S. relations, strategic stability issues and the acute problems on the international agenda, including interaction in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and settlement of regional conflicts.”
The White House is setting low expectations for the meeting. It isn’t expected to lead to any major breakthroughs — let alone the sort of reset of U.S.-Russian relations pursued by Biden’s old boss, Barack Obama, or the curious bonhomie of the Donald Trump-Putin relationship.
White House officials said earlier this week that they were ironing out details for the summit. National security adviser Jake Sullivan discussed details of the meeting when he met with his Russian counterpart, Nikolay Patrushev.
The White House has repeatedly said it is seeking a “stable and predictable” relationship with the Russians, while also calling out Putin on allegations that the Russians interfered in last year’s U.S. presidential election and that the Kremlin was behind a hacking campaign — commonly referred to as the SolarWinds breach — in which Russian hackers infected widely used software with malicious code, enabling them to access the networks of at least nine U.S. agencies.
The Biden administration has also criticized Russia for the arrest and jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and publicly acknowledged that it has low to moderate confidence that Russian agents were offering bounties to the Taliban to attack U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
The Biden administration announced sanctions in March against several mid-level and senior Russian officials, along with more than a dozen businesses and other entities, over a nearly fatal nerve-agent attack on Navalny in August 2020 and his subsequent jailing. Navlany returned to Russia days before Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration and was quickly arrested.
Last month, the administration announced it was expelling 10 Russian diplomats and sanctioning dozens of Russia companies and individuals in response to the SolarWinds hack and election interference allegations.
But even as Biden moved forward with the latest round of sanctions, he acknowledged that he held back on taking tougher action — an attempt to send the message to Putin that he still held hope that the U.S. and Russia could come to an understanding for the rules of the game in their adversarial relationship.
In fact, he brought up the idea of holding a third-country summit in an April 13 call in which he notified Putin that a second round of sanctions was coming.
During his campaign for the White House, Biden described Russia as the “biggest threat” to U.S. security and alliances, and he disparaged his predecessor President Donald Trump for his relationship with Putin. Trump avoided confrontation with Putin and often sought to downplay the Russian leader’s actions.
Weeks into his presidency, Biden said in an address before State Department employees that he told Putin in their first call that he would be taking a radically different approach to Russia than Trump.
“I made it clear to President Putin, in a manner very different from my predecessor, that the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions — interfering with our election, cyber attacks, poisoning its citizens — are over,” said Biden, who last week spoke to Putin in what White House officials called a tense first exchange. “We will not hesitate to raise the cost on Russia and defend our vital interests and our people.”
Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, criticized Biden’s decision to meet with Putin as “weak.” He raised concerns about Russia’s treatment of Navalny and tepid response to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a Putin ally whose country this week ordered the diversion of a Greece-to-Lithuania commercial flight in order to arrest a dissident journalist.
The senator also criticized Biden for sparing ally Germany sanctions over Nord Stream 2, adamantly opposed by U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
“We’re rewarding Putin with a summit?” Sasse said. “Instead of treating Putin like a gangster who fears his own people, we’re giving him his treasured Nord Stream 2 pipeline and legitimizing his actions with a summit.”
Biden in a brief exchange with reporters Tuesday afternoon defended the decision to waive sanctions against Germany for the pipeline. He noted that it is nearly complete and that punishing an ally would have been “counterproductive.”
Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed news of the summit. “Diplomacy only has a chance if you talk to each other,” Merkel said.
In March, Biden in an ABC News interview responded affirmatively when asked by interviewer George Stephanopoulos whether he thought Putin was “a killer.“
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Biden’s comment demonstrated he “definitely does not want to improve relations” with Russia and that relations between the countries were “very bad.”
Reporting by Aamer Madhani, Jonathan LeMire and Jamey Keaten from Geneva. Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed reporting.