GENEVA (NewsNation Now) — President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin concluded their summit on Wednesday with an agreement to return their nations’ ambassadors to their posts in Washington and Moscow and a plan to begin work toward replacing the last remaining treaty between the two countries limiting nuclear weapons.
With stern expressions and polite words before the cameras, Biden and Putin plunged into hours of face-to-face talks Wednesday afternoon at a lush lakeside Swiss mansion, a highly anticipated summit at a time when both leaders agree that relations between their countries are at an all-time low.
The two leaders offered starkly different views on difficult simmering issues including cyber and ransomware attacks originating from Russia.
Putin insisted anew that his country has nothing to do with such attacks, despite U.S. intelligence that indicates otherwise. Biden, meanwhile, said that he made clear to Putin that if Russia crossed certain red lines — including going after major American infrastructure — his administration would respond and “the consequences of that would be devastating.”
But there’s no guarantee that warning will make a difference.
“I said what will change their behavior is if the rest of the world reacts” in a way that “diminishes their standing in the world,” Biden said. “I’m not confident of anything. I’m just stating a fact.”
Both leaders, who have stirred escalating tension since Biden took office in January, suggested that while an enormous chasm between the two nations remains the talks were constructive.
Putin said there was “no hostility” during three hours of talks, a session that wrapped up more quickly than expected.
When it was over, Putin had first crack at describing the results at a solo news conference, with Biden following soon after. Biden said they spent a “great deal of time” discussing cybersecurity and he believed Putin understood the U.S. position.
“I pointed out to him, we have significant cyber capability,” Biden said. “In fact, (if) they violate basic norms, we will respond. … I think that the last thing he wants now is a cold war.”
The meeting in a book-lined room had a somewhat awkward beginning — both men appeared to avoid looking directly at each other during a brief and chaotic photo opportunity before a scrum of jostling reporters.
Putin noted that Biden raised human rights issues with him, including the fate of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Putin defended Navalny’s prison sentence and deflected repeated questions about mistreatment of Russian opposition leaders by highlighting U.S. domestic turmoil, including the Black Lives Matter protests and the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
Putin ignored other shouted questions from reporters during a press conference, including if he feared jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
The two leaders did shake hands — Biden extended his hand first and smiled at the stoic Russian leader — moments earlier when they posed with Swiss President Guy Parmelin, who welcomed them to Switzerland for the summit.
The Russian noted that Biden repeated wise advice his mother had given him and also spoke about his family — messaging that Putin said might not have been entirely relevant to their summit but demonstrated Biden’s “moral values.” Though he raised doubt that the U.S.-Russia relationship could soon return to a measure of equilibrium of years past, Putin suggested that Biden was someone he could work with.
“The meeting was actually very efficient,” Putin said. “It was substantive, it was specific. It was aimed at achieving results, and one of them was pushing back the frontiers of trust.”
For four months, the two leaders have traded sharp rhetoric. Biden repeatedly called out Putin for malicious cyberattacks by Russian-based hackers on U.S. interests, a disregard for democracy with the jailing of Russia’s foremost opposition leader and interference in American elections.
Putin, for his part, has reacted with whatabout-isms and obfuscations — pointing to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol to argue that the U.S. has no business lecturing on democratic norms and insisting that the Russian government hasn’t been involved in any election interference or cyberattacks despite U.S. intelligence showing otherwise.
Putin said he and Biden agreed to begin negotiations on nuclear talks to potentially replace the New START treaty limiting nuclear weapons after it expires in 2026.
Washington broke off talks with Moscow in 2014 in response to Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea and its military intervention in support of separatists in eastern Ukraine. Talks resumed in 2017 but gained little traction and failed to produce an agreement on extending the New START treaty during the Trump administration.
The Russian president said there was an agreement between the leaders to return their ambassadors to their respective postings. Both countries had pulled back their top envoys to Washington and Moscow as relations chilled in recent months.
Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Antonov, was recalled from Washington about three months ago after Biden called Putin a killer; U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan left Moscow almost two months ago, after Russia suggested he return to Washington for consultations. Putin said that the ambassadors were expected to return their posts in the coming days.
Arrangements for the meeting were carefully choreographed and vigorously negotiated by both sides.
Biden first floated the meeting in an April phone call in which he informed Putin that he would be expelling several Russian diplomats and imposing sanctions against dozens of people and companies, part of an effort to hold the Kremlin accountable for interference in last year’s presidential election and the hacking of federal agencies.
Putin and his entourage arrived first at the summit site: Villa La Grange, a grand lakeside mansion set in Geneva’s biggest park. Next were Biden and his team. Swiss President Guy Parmelin will greet the two leaders.
The three spent a moment together in front of the cameras. Biden and Putin held a relatively intimate meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Each side had a translator.
Biden sees himself with few peers on foreign policy. He traveled the globe as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and was given difficult foreign policy assignments by President Barack Obama when Biden was vice president. His portfolio included messy spots like Iraq and Ukraine and weighing the mettle of China’s Xi Jinping during his rise to power.
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He has repeatedly said that he believes executing effective foreign policy comes from forming strong personal relations, and he has managed to find rapport with both the likes of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom Biden has labeled an “autocrat,” and conventional politicians like Canada’s Justin Trudeau.
But with Putin, whom the president has said is a “killer” and has “no soul,” Biden has long been wary. At the same time, he acknowledges that Putin — he has remained the most powerful figure in Russian politics over the span of five U.S. presidents — is not without talent. Biden this week suggested that he was approaching his meeting with Putin carefully.
“He’s bright. He’s tough,” Biden told reporters. “And I have found that he is a — as they say … a worthy adversary.”
The meeting is sure to invite comparisons with President Donald Trump’s 2018 meeting with Putin in Helsinki, where the two leaders held a joint news conference and Trump sided with Russian denials when asked whether Moscow had meddled in the 2016 presidential election.
Biden prepared for his one-on-one by reviewing materials and consulting with officials across government and with outside advisers. Aides said the level of preparation wasn’t unusual. Biden, in a brief exchange with reporters upon arriving in Geneva on Tuesday night, sought to offer the impression that he wasn’t sweating his big meeting.
“I am always ready,” Biden said.
All reporting by the Associated Press. The Associated Press contributed to this report.