Biden, Putin agree to return recalled ambassadors during 1st face-to-face meeting


U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday concluded their first face-to-face summit since Biden took office with an agreement to return their nations' ambassadors to their posts in Washington and Moscow and a plan to begin replacing the last remaining treaty between the two countries limiting nuclear weapons.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and U.S. President Joe Biden shake hands during their meeting Wednesday at the Villa la Grange in Geneva.(Alexander Zemlianichenko/The Associated Press)

U.S. 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.

But 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."

At a post-summit news conference, Biden was asked if Putin would change his behaviour.

"I said what will change their behaviour 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."

U.S. President Joe Biden puts on his sunglasses toward the end of a news conference after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 16, 2021, in Geneva, Switzerland. (Patrick Semansky/The Associated Press)

Cybersecurity discussed in detail

Putin said there was "no hostility" during the talks that wrapped up more quickly than expected.

The two sides had said they expected to meet for four to five hours but spent less than three hours together, including an opening meeting with just the two presidents and a top foreign aide for each.

Biden told reporters that the two men sat across the table at their meeting site talking through each issue "in excruciating detail."

At the end of that, "we looked at each other like, 'OK, what next?' " Biden said. "We had covered so much."

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."

'Pushing back frontiers of trust'

When it was over, Putin had first crack at describing the results of the meeting at a solo news conference, with Biden following in his own session with reporters later Wednesday.

Putin acknowledged 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 police killings of Black people, the Black Lives Matter protests and the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.

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.

"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."

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a news conference after his meeting with U.S President Joe Biden at the 'Villa la Grange' in Geneva, Switzerland on June 16, 2021.(Alexander Zemlianichenko/The Associated Press)

Ambassadors to return

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 the ambassadors were expected to return to their posts in the coming days.

Putin also said the two sides agreed in principle to begin consultations on cybersecurity issues, though he continued to deny U.S. allegations that the Russian government was responsible for a spate of recent high-profile hacks against business and government agencies in the United States and around the globe.

Awkward beginning

As the two leaders appeared briefly before media at the start of the meeting, Biden called it a discussion between "two great powers" and said it was "always better to meet face to face." Putin said he hoped the talks would be "productive."

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.

Biden nodded when a reporter asked if Putin could be trusted, but the White House quickly sent out a tweet insisting that the president was "very clearly not responding to any one question, but nodding in acknowledgment to the press generally."

For months, Biden and Putin have traded sharp rhetoric. Biden has repeatedly called out Putin for malicious cyberattacks by Russian-based hackers on U.S. interests, for the jailing of Russia's foremost opposition leader and for interference in American elections.

Putin has reacted with whatabout-isms and denials — 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.

'Loony stuff'

In advance of Wednesday's meeting, both sides and independent experts set out to lower expectations.

Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat, told Reuters Putin wanted respectful ties and to be treated like members of the Soviet Politburo were in the 1960s-1980s, with "a symbolic recognition of Russia's geopolitical parity with the U.S."

"In exchange, [Moscow] would be willing to cut back on some of the loony stuff," Frolov said, saying he meant "no poisonings, no physical violence, no arrests/kidnappings of U.S. and Russian nationals. No interference in domestic politics."

Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center think-tank, set the bar for Wednesday's talks low.

"The principal takeaway, in the positive sense, from the Geneva meeting would be making sure that the United States and Russia did not come to blows physically, so that a military collision is averted," he said.

With files from Reuters

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