Sometimes it’s the words one doesn’t say that tell the real story. In his press conference following his meeting with US president Joe Biden, Russian leader Vladimir Putin refused to say the name of Alexei Navalny.
Asked about the arrest of the opposition figure who was poisoned by the Russian government, Mr Putin was typically steely. He “knew that he was breaking the law of Russia, ” he said, when he went abroad for treatment. He “ignored the demands of the law, and knowing about that he came back to Russia.”
Through translators, he used the term “this citizen” to refer to the 45-year-old dissident. It’s a familiar Putin tactic – subtly controlling the narrative through his use of language, dismissing any dissent with barely-concealed disdain.
Putin’s defiance over the fate of Alexei Navalny captures a central dilemma for Joe Biden as he wrapped up his week-long trip to Europe with a one-on-one meeting with the Russian leader. Can he change?
Wednesday’s meeting between the US and Russian leaders was one of the most important bilateral meetings of Mr Biden’s presidency to date, and will dictate the shape of US-Russia relations for at least a year. According to both men, the meeting was positive.
Putin in his press conference said that both sides had “manifested a determination to try to understand each other” and he described Mr Biden as very “balanced”, “professional” and “experienced”. Biden, whose press conference took place after Putin’s, said the tone had been “good” and “positive,” and no “strident action” had been taken.
But while the tone was cordial, the more important question is whether the content of the discussion will yield results.
The two leaders speak at the villa La Grangein Geneva. Photograph: Peter Klaunzer/EPA
As expected, human rights, Ukraine, cyber-security and foreign policy challenges were discussed.
Speaking after the meeting, Biden said he had raised human rights abuses with Putin, casting it as a central tenet of American democracy. “How could I be the president of the United States of America and not speak out about the violation of human rights?” the US president said, stating that it’s “part of the DNA of our country.”
But during his press conference Putin repeatedly referenced America’s own short-comings – from gun crime, to unrest over racial injustice, to the January 6th attack on the US Capitol, as a way of deflecting questions about Russia. This whataboutism was not unexpected, and America will dismiss it as bluster. But ultimately it appears that the US side got few guarantees about the fate of Navalny or any move by Russia to reassess its relationship with Belarus during the meeting, though Biden warned of “devastating” consequences if Navalny dies in prison.
Similarly on cyber-security, Putin was defiant in his press conference, denying Russian involvement in many of the world’s cyber attacks that are becoming increasingly a source of alarm in the West.
Biden said he gave Putin a list of 16 specific entities designated as critical infrastructure which should be off-limits. He said he asked the Russian president how he would feel if ransomware took down the pipelines that run Russia’s oilfields, a reference to the recent attack on the Colonial Pipeline.
The two sides agreed to set up a working-group to look at cyber-security. But as Biden said, “the principle is one thing, it has to be backed up by practice.”
While the president said that no threats were made during the meeting, he said he warned Russia that the US would respond if the basic norms of cybersecurity are violated. Some kind of result from the working group may be forthcoming in three or six months, the US president hinted. But as he added; “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.”
As he finished his press conference, Biden became visibly irritated with a US reporter who asked the why he was so confident that Putin would change. Biden rejected the premise of the question, and later gave an impromptu press conference with reporters as he boarded Air Force One for Washington, giving a sheepish apology. “I shouldn’t have been such a wise guy.”
But the question of trust and deliverables loomed over the picture-perfect setting on Lake Geneva.
As the working-groups get to work – a positive step as the US tries to co-ordinate with Russia on areas of common strategic interest – in the immediate term, the interaction between Washington and Moscow is likely to be in the foreign policy realm.
With America beginning the tricky process of withdrawing from Afghanistan, Russia’s role in the region will be significant. Similarly, Biden said he raised the importance of maintaining humanitarian corridors in Syria as well as Iran, where Russia is a signatory to the stalled nuclear deal.
Ensuring that Wednesday’s summit delivers progress on US areas of strategic interest will be vital to the American side. Otherwise the Geneva gathering may prove to be little more than a grandstanding opportunity.