High interest but low expectations as Biden, Putin talks kick off

With deep disagreements likely and expectations of solving them low, U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin shook hands at a lakeside Geneva villa on Wednesday for their first summit since Biden took office.

The two men greeted each other after standing with their host, Swiss President Guy Parmelin, outside the La Grange villa overlooking Lake Geneva, where they are set to meet for up to five hours – with cyber-attacks, election meddling and rights abuses among the many contentious issues on the agenda.

Sitting in the plush villa’s renowned library, on either side of a globe and with their respective flags behind them, the two leaders exchanged a few cordial remarks before the accompanying journalists were asked to leave.

Putin thanked Biden “for your initiative to meet today”.

“The US and Russian relations have a lot of issues accumulated that require the highest-level meeting,” he said, adding: “I hope that our meeting will be productive.”

Biden, who not only took the initiative for the summit itself but also for that first handshake, smiled and said: “It is always better to meet face to face.”

Both have said they hope their talks can lead to more stable and predictable relations, even though they remain at odds over everything from arms control and cyber-hacking to election interference and Ukraine.

“We’re not expecting a big set of deliverables out of this meeting,” a senior US official told reporters aboard Air Force One as Biden flew to Geneva.

Putin’s foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov said ahead of the talks that he was “not sure that any agreements will be reached”.

Relations have deteriorated for years, notably with Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, its 2015 intervention in Syria and US charges – denied by Moscow – of its meddling in the 2016 election that brought Donald Trump to the White House.

They sank further in March when Biden said he thought Putin was a “killer”, prompting Russia to recall its ambassador to Washington for consultations. The United States recalled its ambassador in April.

The senior US official said the United States aimed for a set of “taskings” – Washington jargon for assigning aides to work on specific issues – “about areas where working together can advance our national interests and make the world safer”.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said whether or not to send back ambassadors would be decided by the two presidents. “Today the presidents will need to determine how to proceed with the heads of the diplomatic missions,” Peskov was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.

While the issues may be vexing, the surroundings will be serene when the presidents meet in Villa La Grange, an elegant mansion set in a 30-hectare (nearly 75-acre) park overlooking Lake Geneva.

‘Very little hope of progress’

High interest, low expectations

FRANCE 24’s Gulliver Cragg confirmed the mood in Geneva, saying there is “very little hope on progress on any of the really big dossiers that could be on the table. But I think what they’re hoping for is to put the ‘table back together’”.

Cragg said the tit-for-tat expulsions have really soured the relations between Washington and Moscow, resulting in very little diplomatic contact between the two, but that “both sides seem to be willing to put those back together”.

He added that although such an rapprochement is usually referred to as a “reset” in the diplomacy world, “Biden absolutely doesn’t want it to be called a ‘reset’, he doesn’t want to use that term – that was the strategy that he, as vice president and Barack Obama as president, employed towards Vladimir Putin a little more than a decade ago and it is seen as not having been a success”.

Cragg said that although interest in the Geneva summit is extremely high, it “surpasses by a very long way the likelihood of anything really being achieved”.

Lockdown

On Wednesday, the summit perimeter was under a tight lockdown with heavy police presence. Following a their bilateral meeting, Biden and Putin will continue on to their discussions with broader US and Russian delegations including US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, along with interpreters.

Arms control is one domain where progress has historically been possible despite wider disagreements.

In February, Russia and the United States extended for five years the New START treaty, which caps their deployed strategic nuclear warheads and limits the land- and submarine-based missiles and bombers to deliver them.

The senior US official said Biden would also define areas of vital national interest where Russian misconduct would bring a response. Biden signed an executive order in April giving Washington wide latitude to impose sanctions on Moscow.

In a sign of the strained ties, the talks will not include any meals and Putin and Biden are expected to hold separate news conferences rather than a joint one.

“No breaking of bread,” said the senior US official.

Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat, told Reuters that 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 US”.

“In exchange, they (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 US 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.

In contrast to Trump, whose 2018 summit with Putin in Helsinki included a meeting accompanied only by interpreters, Biden and Putin are not expected to have any solo dealings.

Standing beside Putin in Helsinki, Trump refused to blame the Russian leader for meddling in the 2016 US election, casting doubt on the findings of his own intelligence agencies and sparking a storm of domestic criticism.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)

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