A scuffle between reporters and Russian security officials before President Biden met with Vladimir Putin in Geneva on Wednesday was a minor event. Yet it spoke to the gulf between the thuggish habits of the Russian leader’s regime and Biden’s hopes for a world friendlier to democratic liberties.
It was an apt prequel to Putin’s post-meeting news conference where he defended his jailing of a Russian dissident while refusing to use Alexei Navalny’s name.
In a classic display of his devotion to whataboutism, Putin defended his regime’s repression by attacking the U.S. record on human rights and brazenly insisting that he is only trying to avoid the sort of disorder the United States experienced in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Putin then spun a remarkable syllogism, arguing that since the United States regarded Russia as “an enemy,” U.S.-supported human rights advocates in Russia were enemies of his state. He also flatly denied that the Russian government has played any role in cyberattacks on the United States, which strains credulity.
Watching Putin play defense underscored the good news from Geneva: The Biden-Putin encounter could hardly have been more different from the bizarre get-togethers between the Russian leader and former president Donald Trump. Biden denied the Russian leader a shared podium, and there was, thankfully, no fawning over Putin, no taking Putin’s word over the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies.
On the contrary, when Biden met later with reporters, he derided any link between the jailing of Navalny and the Jan. 6 events as “ridiculous,” and he used his opening remarks to reaffirm the democracy-strengthening purpose of his European journey.
Biden said he told Putin that “no president of the United States could keep faith with the American people if they did not speak out to defend our democratic values, to stand up for the universal and fundamental freedoms that all men and women have in our view. That’s just part of the DNA of our country.”
That Biden got prickly at the end of his news conference when CNN’s Kaitlan Collins pressed him on why he had confidence that Putin would change his behavior — the president insisted he had expressed no such confidence — pointed to the core challenge of the high-profile meeting. (Just before he boarded his plane home, Biden apologized for being “a wise guy” in his response.)
Biden stressed that the Putin meeting was a quest to understand differences and lay the groundwork for future discussions, not an effort to reach substantive agreements. This pointed to the problem posed by the encounter from the start. Beyond enhancing Putin’s profile, it threatened to overshadow the rest of Biden’s European journey, a broadly successful effort to refurbish the United States’ alliances with its longtime friends in Europe.
Throughout the trip, Biden relished reciting the anthem “America is back,” referring to the sort of leadership the United States had been accustomed to offering since the end of World War II. The adoption of Biden’s “Build Back Better” slogan as the headline phrase of the communique issued by the Group of Seven leaders underscored Europe’s embrace of his approach.
And if Biden was seeking to reinforce an older vision of the United States’ global role, the substance of what Europe’s leaders agreed on marked a sharp break with both the austerity policies of the past decade and the Reagan/Thatcher consensus on smaller government of the 1980s.
On its front page Saturday, the London-based Financial Times referred to “the west’s apparent conversion to social democracy.” The key documents and public statements by European leaders focused on reducing inequalities, enhancing systems of social protection, acting against climate change and supporting government-led efforts to restore growth.
Because of the inevitable media attention it fostered, the Putin meeting had more downside than upside. It threatened to dilute Biden’s democracy message with a heavy dose of realpolitik, exaggerate Putin’s world role and undercut the harmonization of Western governments around more progressive economic policies.
In the end, Biden dodged the bullet. He started and ended his trip by underscoring how different he is from Trump. He gave little ground to Putin beyond the respect he showed by meeting with him. And he preached his democratic gospel to the last.
Biden’s final thought before he headed home: “As long as I’m president, we’re going to stick to the notion that we’re open, accountable and transparent.” Perhaps that was a parting shot at Vladimir Putin.
Katrina vanden Heuvel: Biden has an opportunity to begin rebuilding the U.S.’s fractured relationship with Russia
President Biden’s first foreign trip
Latest: Putin swaggers toward summit with Biden as an old hand at dueling with the West
Live updates: Biden arrives in Geneva for Putin summit after meeting with European Union leaders in Brussels
Analysis and more:
Amid internal disputes over Russia policy, Biden has chosen a mix of confrontation and cooperation
‘Part of the club’: Biden relishes revival of alliances that Trump dismissed
Biden, E.U. eliminate long-running aircraft trade dispute, but other Trump tariffs still stand in the way
Biden takes steps to rein in ‘forever wars’ in Afghanistan and Iraq
Photos: Putin’s rocky relationship with American presidents
Biden will give Putin a list of demands. The Russian president may ignore them.
NATO expands focus to China, a win for Biden in his first trip to the battered alliance
President Biden says Queen Elizabeth II ‘reminded me of my mother’