US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin got a feel for each other in Geneva on Wednesday, pledging to follow up this session with further talks and efforts to restore some diplomatic outreach.
The discussions were pragmatic and positive, both said in separate press conferences, after meetings that had been expected to focus as much on “red lines” as well as on shared interests.
Biden and Putin agreed to reinstate their ambassadors, after the envoys returned home earlier this year as tensions between the two countries ratcheted upwards, the Russian president said afterwards.
Each staged a separate press conference afterwards, commenting on a meeting that Biden described as “constructive.”
Putin said the talks were “not hostile” and “constructive,” despite many divergent positions between them. He described Biden as a “very experienced politician.”
He also compared Biden with the US president’s predecessor, Donald Trump, and called his US counterpart a “very balanced, professional man.”
Putin also noted a change in approach since Donald Trump, noting that Biden’s predecessor was “different.”
For his part, Biden said, “I think we have real opportunities.”
However, he noted that the two had not become close friends. “This is not about trust. It’s about self interest, and about verification of self interest,” he said.
As expected, arms control was high on the agenda and the two leaders pledged to set up consultations at agency level for greater strategic stability and arms control, Putin said.
After the meeting, Biden told journalists he did not think Putin wanted another Cold War. “It’s not in anyone’s interests,” he said.
In terms of foreign policy, they also discussed Afghanistan, Syria and the nuclear deal with Iran and Biden said that Putin was prepared to “help” on Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and Libya.
Their talks also covered cybersecurity, a fraught area after the US launched diplomatic and financial offensives against Russian officials and businesses following election-meddling and Moscow-linked cyberhacks.
Putin said they had agreed on the need for further negotiations on cybersecurity, while for his part, Biden said he had made it clear to that the US also has significant cyber capabilities.
“There were no threats, just simple assertions, letting him know where I stood, what I thought we could accomplish together and when they are violations of US sovereignty what we are going to do,” Biden summed up.
Biden also said that he had emphasized the importance of following international norms – and that it was in both countries’ interests to follow these.
Asked afterwards about a possible prisoner exchange, Putin said he and Biden were open to this but did not say any agreement had been made on this matter.
When questioned on the topic of human rights, Putin said Biden had broached the issue but did not mention any areas of agreement.
Later, Biden said when he had addressed the subject of Navalny, Putin had compared the situation to the January 6 storming of the Capitol in Washington, a comparison Biden described as “ridiculous.”
While four to five hours had been set aside for the talks in the villa overlooking Lake Geneva, they finished after three.
Asked afterwards why the discussions had not continued longer, Biden said leaders did not tend to hold talks beyond two hours and avoid “going into excruciating detail.”
Ahead of Biden’s meeting with Putin, the Kremlin and the White House both scaled back expectations.
A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson had said that, even during Soviet times, contact between the two sides was not at such a low level.
Meanwhile Biden had vowed to “make it clear what the red lines are” on areas of disagreement.
The summit between the two nuclear powers and age-old rivals followed Biden’s first trip abroad as US president to Europe, during which he has been consulting with allies at the Group of Seven (G7), NATO and the European Union.
There were cooler comments, too. Putin said he had no illusions about his relationship with the US, according to TASS news agency.
Biden told the press, “I’m not saying all of a sudden it’s going to work.”
Looking further ahead, Biden said only then would it be clear six months down the line how much progress had been made on particular issues.
“The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”