LONDON—Whether hurling opponents on the judo mat or spearfishing shirtless in the mountains of Siberia, President Vladimir Putin is known for exhibiting a particularly ostentatious form of Russian machismo.
But when President Joe Biden met with Putin for their first mano-a-mano meeting since the new American leader’s inauguration, the former vice president conspicuously mirrored Putin’s own muscular approach to diplomacy—albeit with an emphasis on stability sorely lacking in American foreign policy for the last four years.
“President Putin and I share a unique responsibility to manage the relationship between two powerful and proud countries,” Biden told reporters in Geneva, Switzerland, after more than three hours of bilateral talks with the Russian president. That relationship, he said, is one that needs to be “stable and predictable.”
Biden’s mission, as he described it, was to make clear to Putin “why I say what I say and why I do what I do… and I did what I came to do.”
After eight days of promising America’s allies overseas that the United States could once again be a trusted adult at the negotiating table, Biden’s straight-talking summation of the bilateral talks was effectively a switching of gears from statesman to tough guy. Speaking with reporters, Biden emphasized the need for a realistic reappraisal of the relationship between the U.S. and Russia, now at its lowest point since the end of the Cold War.
“The bottom line is I told President Putin that we need to have some basic rules of the road that we can all abide by,” Biden said, noting that despite disagreements on the need for mutual assurances on cybersecurity and critical infrastructure, as well as deteriorating human rights for political opponents of Putin’s regime, that the conversation was largely “positive.”
“My agenda is not against Russia or anyone else—it’s for the American people,” Biden said. “This is about practical, straightforward, no-nonsense decisions that we have to make or not make.”
Putin, for his part, has clearly revelled in his starring role in Biden’s first international trip, culminating in a free-wheeling press conference in which the Russian leader nimbly dodged questions about his human rights record, musing on philosophy and comparing the jailing of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny to the arrests of rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol in January.
“They face prison sentences of up to 20, 25 years, they’re being called domestic terrorists,” Putin said in response to a question about the arrests and murders of numerous political opponents in Russia over the years. “People rioted and went into Congress, with political demands, many people were declared as criminals and they are threatened with imprisonment.”
In the build-up to the summit, the Russian media emphasized the fact that it was Biden who asked Putin for the meeting in Geneva. In other words, it was the American who was inviting Russia back onto center stage. The first words Putin said to Biden were: “Mr. President, I’d like to thank you for your initiative to meet today.”
The Russian leader repeated the same line during a long and rambling press conference in which he praised Biden as an “experienced” and focused statesman.
Putin has reason to be pleased. Even President Donald Trump—whose fawning treatment during their first bilateral meeting in Helsinki, Finland prompted outrage back home—didn’t agree to meet him in person until 18 months into his administration. Biden also phoned Putin within a week of entering the White House.
The driving force of Putin’s entire presidency has been returning Russia to global prominence after the economic and political ruin that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In his multiple mentions of Russia as a “great power,” Biden was clearly attempting to speak to Putin’s pride, with the hope that showing respect can help to ease tensions with Russia at a moment when Biden aims to prove that American-style democracy can succeed in the face of rising autocracy in Russia and China.
The U.S. president appeared to look Putin directly in the eye as the men shook hands. The Russian president looked away first, turning towards the press pool with a wave before both men disappeared inside the villa Parc de la Grange, a stunning 18th-century chateau overlooking Lake Geneva.
They held talks for around three hours before re-emerging to hold separate press conferences.
In his hour-long Q&A, Putin spoke warmly about Biden, praising his intellectual rigor and claiming that there was a growing trust between the men.
“In life there is no happiness. There’s only the mirage of happiness,” Putin said. “But I believe there’s a spark of hope in his eyes.”
He said the talks had been “constructive” and good natured. “I don’t think there was any kind of hostility,” Putin said.
While he did not say a single word to criticize Biden, Putin did manage to blame the U.S. for the state of relations between the two countries and repeated his well-worn claim that American backers were funding and fueling the grassroots opposition movement against him in Russia.
When Biden came out for his own press conference he was firmer, saying that he had laid down the “rules of the road,” but he would not be drawn into personal criticism of Putin.
When one reporter asked Biden while he was walking away why he was so confident Putin’s behavior would change after the warmth of this meeting, Biden raised his voice for the first time: “What the hell?… when did I say I was confident?… I’m just stating facts.”
Moscow signaled before the meeting that one of its top priorities was potential prisoner swaps, with one Kremlin insider telling The Daily Beast that Putin would be willing to release Paul Whelan, an American civilian sentenced to six years in prison for spying, in exchange for a high-value Russian inmate in the U.S. such as Victor Bout, an arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death.”
Putin confirmed that he discussed the subject with Biden and said, “We might be able to find some compromise there.” The two leaders also agreed to hold further talks on cyber security and nuclear limitations.
The summit with Putin was the final stop on Biden’s whirlwind re-introduction to international diplomacy.
Pre-trip the White House was at pains to point out that the mission of this week on the road was simply to tell the world that the U.S. was back after the aberration of the Trump presidency but that was not the full picture.
Seemingly at every turn, Biden has sought to ratchet up the pressure on Beijing. It is now clear that the real aim of a diplomatic hot step that stretched from the G7 to NATO and the EU was to remind President Xi Jinping that not only is the U.S. back on the world stage—it’s back with more powerful allies than China could ever muster.