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With Putin, Biden tries to forge a bond of self-interest, not souls

Biden, who agreed this year with an interviewer that Putin was a “killer,” said Wednesday that he had no need to discuss that further. “Why would I bring it up again?” Biden asked.

By: New York Times |
Updated: June 17, 2021 8:48:13 am
Joe Biden, Vladimir Putin, Biden-Putin summit, Biden-Putin talks, US-Russia ties, US-Russia relations, world news, Indian expressPresident Joe Biden of the U.S. and President Vladimir Putin of Russia just before the start of their meeting in the Villa La Grange, in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, June 16, 2021. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Written by Peter Baker

No one peered admiringly into anyone’s soul. No one called anyone a killer. By all appearances, President Joe Biden’s much-anticipated meeting with President Vladimir Putin of Russia was not warm, but neither was it hot.

As he became the fifth American president to sit down with the troublesome Mr. Putin, Biden on Wednesday made an effort to forge a working relationship shorn of the ingratiating flattery of his immediate predecessor yet without the belligerent language that he himself has employed about the Russian leader in the past.

If their opening encounter in Geneva proves any indication, theirs seems likely to be a strained and frustrating association, one where the two leaders may maintain a veneer of civil discourse even as they joust on the international stage and in the shadows of cyberspace. The two emerged from 2 1/2 hours of meetings having reviewed a laundry list of disputes without a hint of resolution to any of them and no sign of a personal bond that could bridge the gulf that has opened between their two nations.

Their assessments of each other were dutiful but restrained. Putin called Biden “a very balanced, professional man” and “very experienced” politician. “It seems to me that we did speak the same language,” Putin said. “It certainly doesn’t imply that we looked into each other’s eyes and found a soul or swore eternal friendship.”

As for Biden, he did not answer when asked if he had developed a deeper understanding of the Russian leader and avoided characterizing his counterpart. Their talks were “good, positive,” he said, and not “strident.” They discussed their disagreements, “but it was not done in a hyperbolic atmosphere.”

Biden, who agreed this year with an interviewer that Putin was a “killer,” said Wednesday that he had no need to discuss that further. “Why would I bring it up again?” Biden asked.

But he was palpably sensitive to criticism that he was too accommodating to Putin, a worry shared by some inside his own administration and a critique that has turned into an increasingly loud talking point by Republicans who rarely protested President Donald Trump’s chummy bromance with the Russian leader.

Asked as he was leaving his post-meeting news conference how he could be confident that Putin’s behavior would change, Biden whirled about and grew testy. “When did I say I was confident?” he snapped at a reporter. “I said what will change their behavior is if the rest of the world reacts to them and it diminishes their standing in the world. I’m not confident of anything. I’m just stating a fact.”

The fact that Biden and Putin offered their judgments at separate news conferences was itself a telling sign of the coolness in the relationship. Since 1989, when President George H.W. Bush and President Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union addressed reporters together after a summit meeting in Malta, joint media appearances have been the standard for American and Russian leaders.

Biden opted instead not to share a stage with the Russian leader, drawing a sharp contrast with Trump, who benefited from Russian interference in the 2016 campaign even though no illegal collusion was ever charged. With the master of the Kremlin by his side in Helsinki, Finland, in 2018, Trump memorably suggested that he trusted Putin’s denial more than American intelligence agencies that detected the election interference — a view the former president reaffirmed just last week.

Biden, by contrast, emphasized that he did not place his faith in Putin. “This is not about trust,” he said. “This is about self-interest and verification of self-interest.”

But the decision to hold the meeting at all was also a break from the previous administration Biden was a part of. After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, President Barack Obama, with the support of Biden, then his vice president, sought to isolate Putin, throwing him out of the Group of 8 industrialized nations and refusing to meet with him.

Biden has effectively abandoned that approach, gambling that it was better to grant Putin the respect of a meeting and the stature that comes from sitting down with an American president in hopes of preventing further escalation in the conflict with Moscow. The goal is less to make the situation better than to keep it from becoming worse.

In that sense, some experts said offering the Geneva meeting may have forestalled Putin from taking more aggressive action in recent weeks, given that in the interim he pulled back at least some troops he had massed on the border with Ukraine and provided medical assistance to Alexei Navalny, the imprisoned opposition leader who was said to be on the edge of death.

By appearing before cameras together only for a few moments at the beginning of their meeting, Biden and Putin gave little indication of personal chemistry. They shook hands but shared little of the body-language bonhomie that Trump did with Putin. In one small area of commonality, Biden gave a pair of his favorite aviator sunglasses to Putin, who also loves wearing shades. And Putin noted that Biden shared stories about his mother, as he often does.

They each voiced their divergent positions afterward, with Biden condemning Russian cyberattacks, international aggression and domestic oppression and Putin engaging in his typical what-about defense by citing objectionable American actions. In a truculent tone, Putin even defended his crackdown on nonviolent opposition figures like Navalny by saying he wanted to avoid an insurrection like the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol, a comparison Biden called “ridiculous.” But they kept their criticisms from becoming personal.

“It was businesslike, it was professional,” said Angela Stent, a former national intelligence officer on Russia and author of books about Putin and the West. “Neither of them really gave ground on anything. But they seemed to have established something that could be a working relationship.”

Fiona Hill, who as Trump’s senior Russia adviser was so alarmed by his deference to Putin in Helsinki that she has said she thought about faking a medical emergency to end the session, called this meeting a marked contrast. “It just feels more professional on both sides,” she said.

While Biden is sunnier and Putin more dour, they are both seasoned political leaders under no illusions about each other. “Both of them are realists,” she said. “There’s nobody going in there with high expectations.”

Biden is only the latest in a long line of American presidents forced to figure out how to deal with Putin, a two-decade story of misjudgment, exasperation and bitterness. A onetime KGB colonel who reversed Russia’s halting post-Soviet experiment with democracy and consolidated power in the hands of a small, well-heeled ruling clique, Putin has defied all manner of American charm, inducement, pressure and punishment.

President Bill Clinton was the first to interact with Putin after he became prime minister and considered him “tough enough to hold Russia together,” as he later put it in his memoir, but felt brushed off by the new leader who seemed uninterested in doing business with a departing American president.

His successor, President George W. Bush, fashioned a closer bond with Putin at first, famously declaring after their first meeting that he had gotten “a sense of his soul,” a comment he came to regret.

The two grew apart, particularly after Bush’s invasion of Iraq and Putin’s increasing suppression of internal dissent. By later years, Bush complained privately that meetings with Putin were “like arguing with an eighth grader with his facts wrong” and told a European leader that Putin had become “a czar.” They finally broke after Russia’s invasion of the former Soviet republic of Georgia in 2008.

Obama and Biden came into office determined to “reset” relations with Russia and made some progress by negotiating a new arms control treaty and transit rights for American troops heading to Afghanistan through Russian airspace. But Obama and Putin came to disdain each other even before the Ukraine invasion, with the American mocking the Russian for having a “kind of slouch” that made him look “like that bored schoolboy in the back of the classroom.”

Trump’s relationship with Putin was most perplexing because he broke from bipartisan consensus and lavished extravagant praise on a Russian leader considered an anti-democratic, anti-American authoritarian by almost everyone else in Washington. Under pressure from Congress or his own advisers, Trump’s administration at times imposed sanctions or expelled diplomats in response to Russian provocations, but the president himself avoided publicly criticizing Putin.

Even discounting Trump, Biden arrived in Geneva with the advantage of having met with Putin before as vice president and watching his predecessors struggle with the Putin challenge. “He’s trying to synthesize all the lessons from every other president,” Hill said.

As a result, the Biden team knew how Putin tries to knock American presidents off guard by keeping them waiting or by having the last word, so it made certain to sidestep those traps in Geneva by starting the meetings on time and having Biden go second in the dueling news conferences.

“Our side now knows what the games are that Putin plays,” said Evelyn Farkas, a senior Pentagon official focused on Russia under Obama. “There are a lot of things we got smart on.”

But if Biden avoided a rupture with Putin at their first meeting, it was only the beginning of this latest chapter in Russian-American relations. “We can all wipe the sweat off our brow that we got through that one,” Hill said. “The question is what comes next.”

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