US president Joe Biden and Russian president Vladimir Putin decided at a “pragmatic” first summit on Wednesday to hold arms control and cyber-security talks and return their respective ambassadors, while agreeing to differ on other issues.
The discussions at the lakeside Villa La Grange in Geneva lasted less than four hours – far less than Mr Biden’s advisers had said they expected.
Mr Putin (68) called Mr Biden (78) a constructive, experienced partner, and said they spoke “the same language”, but added that there had been no friendship, rather a pragmatic dialogue about their two countries’ interests.
Mr Biden said he had “told President Putin we need some basic rules of the road that we can all abide by”, adding: “I did what I came to do.”
The scheduling of separate news conferences meant there was none of the joviality that accompanied a 2018 meeting in Helsinki between Mr Putin and Mr Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, where Mr Putin presented Mr Trump with a football. There was also no shared meal.
Mr Putin, who was first to brief reporters, said the meeting had been constructive, without hostility, and had showed the leaders’ desire to understand each other.
He said it was “hard to say” if relations with the United States would improve, but that there was a “glimpse of hope” regarding mutual trust. There were no invitations to Washington or Moscow.
Mr Biden, speaking shortly afterwards, said there was “no substitute for face-to-face dialogue”, and that he had told Mr Putin his agenda was “not against Russia”, but “for the American people”.
He also said the discussions had spent a great deal of time on arms control and on cyber-attacks, where he had told Mr Putin that “critical infrastructure should be off-limits”.
In perhaps his strongest remark, he said the consequences would be “devastating for Russia” if jailed opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny died.
Both men said Russia and the United States shared a responsibility for nuclear stability, and would hold talks on possible changes to their recently extended New START arms limitation treaty.
Mr Putin showed little appetite for compromise on a range of other issues, dismissing Washington’s concerns about Mr Navalny, about Russia’s increased military presence near Ukraine’s eastern border, and about US suggestions that unidentified Russians were responsible for a series of cyber-attacks in the United States.
Mr Putin said Mr Navalny had ignored the law and had known what would happen if he returned to Russia from Germany, where he had received treatment for an attempt inside Russia to kill him with poison. He also accused Kiev of breaking the terms of a ceasefire agreement with pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
The Kremlin leader said Russia had been the target of numerous cyber-attacks originating in from the United States.
Mr Biden said he had raised human rights issues and also the fate of US citizens jailed in Russia. Mr Putin said he believed some compromises could be found, although he gave no indication of any prisoner exchange deal.
Arms control is, however, 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 the number of strategic nuclear warheads they can deploy and limits the land- and submarine-based missiles and bombers to deliver them.
Both sides had said in advance of the summit that they hoped for more stable and predictable relations, even though they were at odds over everything from arms control and cyber-hacking to election interference and Ukraine. – Reuters