Biden and Putin start high-stakes diplomacy at Geneva summit

U.S. President Joe Biden and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin meet for the U.S.-Russia summit at Villa La Grange in Geneva, Switzerland, June 16, 2021.

Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

One of the most highly-anticipated political events of the year has begun with Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden meeting at their summit in Geneva.

The two leaders shook hands as they greeted each other at Villa La Grange in the capital of Switzerland, chosen as the location for the summit due to its history of political neutrality.

On meeting his U.S. counterpart, Putin said he hoped the meeting would be productive.

“Mr President, I’d like to thank you for your initiative to meet today,” Putin said, sitting next to Biden and accompanied by their respective foreign ministers. “It is always better to meet face to face,” Biden responded, Reuters reported.

The summit, which is expected to last up to five hours, includes an initial meeting between the presidents and their closest officials, and then talks between the wider Russia and U.S. delegations will be followed by separate press conferences with the two leaders.

Global media attention on the summit is intense and there were scuffles between Russian and American reporters at the entrance of the summit venue.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin waves next to Swiss President Guy Parmelin as he arrives at Villa La Grange for the U.S.-Russia summit, in Geneva, Switzerland, June 16, 2021.

Denis Balibous | Reuters

The summit begins with a first meeting between Biden and Putin accompanied by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, as well as translators.

After this initial meeting a wider delegation will meet for several sessions before both leaders give separate press conferences; Putin is expected to give the first media update, followed by Biden. No time has been set aside for a meal during the summit, but breaks for the leaders are expected.

The agenda

The Putin-Biden summit is being closely watched around the world as U.S.-Russia relations remain tense following a slew of geopolitical clashes and international sanctions in recent years.

U.S. president Joe Biden disembarks from Airforce One after arriving in Geneva, one day prior to the U.S. – Russia summit.

Pool | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 got it suspended from the then-Group of Eight and earned it international sanctions. Since then Russia has been accused of 2016 U.S. election meddling, two nerve agent attacks (in the U.K. in 2018 and allegedly on Alexei Navalny, an opposition leader and Putin critic, in 2020) as well as involvement in cyberattacks and human rights abuses.

Russia has always denied the multiple accusations leveled against it, saying it is a victim of anti-Russian sentiment in the West.

The summit comes hot on the heels of a flurry of American diplomacy with its allies in Europe and beyond. Biden visited the U.K. for the Group of Seven summit last weekend, then a NATO summit in Brussels on Monday and then an EU-U.S. summit on Tuesday, giving the U.S. leader plenty of food for thought for his meeting with Putin.

The agenda for the presidents’ meeting is expected to include “strategic stability,” climate change as well as nuclear stability, arms control and cybersecurity and potentially a range of other topics including the fate of Navalny, Ukraine, Belarus and the outlook for Russian and U.S. nationals imprisoned in each other’s countries.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (C) welcomed at Geneva Airport as he arrives for a Russia-United States summit.

Sergei Bobylev | TASS | Getty Images

No ‘big set of deliverables’

On Tuesday, a senior White House official said the Biden administration was “not expecting a big set of deliverables out of this meeting” but three basic things.

“First, a clear set of taskings about areas where working together can advance our national interest and make the world safer. Second, a clear laydown of the areas of America’s vital national interests, where Russian activities that run counter to those interests will be met with a response,” he said.

“And third, a clear explication of the President’s vision for American values and our national priorities,” he said. The official added that, as for talking points with Putin, “for the American President, nothing is off the table.”

Given the adversarial nature of the U.S. and Russia’s relationship in recent years, analysts see little chance of “breakthrough” moments at the Geneva summit.

Read more: Biden and Putin are about to have a high-stakes meeting: Here’s what you need to know

People walk under Russian and American flags on a bridge in the city center prior to a meeting between U.S. President, Joe Biden and Russian President, Vladimir Putin on June 15, 2021 in Geneva, Switzerland.

Sean Gallup | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Still, the meeting is seen as a chance to calm relations and introduce some much needed stability into affairs.

“This is an attempt to stabilize the situation,” Ian Bond, director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform, told CNBC Wednesday. “The slogan from the Americans has been that they want predictability and stability in the relationship and it has been on a downward spiral, things have been getting worse.”

Still, Bond did not think that there would be a return to “business as usual” with Putin unlikely to change, particularly given domestic pressures due to the Covid crisis and its impact on the Russian economy and living standards.

“It makes sense for him (Putin) to try and keep his adversaries off balance and guessing what his next move will be,” Bond noted. “The Americans will try and impose more framework on this relationship but I’m not sure they will necessarily succeed.”

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