Putin offered a few compliments to President Biden — some that were intentional (e.g., that Biden is experienced in diplomacy), and others that were not (e.g., that Biden’s views on human rights are different than Biden’s predecessor). He also provided a glimpse into his gloomy worldview: “There is no happiness in life. There’s only a mirage on the horizon.”
The contrast between Putin and Biden was on clear display during their individual news conferences. Even the settings of those events were remarkably distinct: Putin held his inside; Biden’s was outside, with bright sunshine and a picturesque background.
Biden emphasized his defense of human rights and democracy. “I pointed out to [Putin], that’s why we are going to raise our concerns about cases, like Alexei Navalny. I made it clear to President Putin, and will continue to raise issues of fundamental human rights, because that’s what we are. That’s who we are,” he recounted. “No president of the United States could keep faith with the American people if they did not speak out to defend our democratic values. . . . Human rights is going to always be on the table, I told him.” The president also warned that if Navalny died, the consequences for Russia would be devastating. When asked about Putin’s false equivalency between his jailing of a dissident and Jan. 6, Biden declared it a “ridiculous comparison.”
What a difference a presidential election makes. Here was a sober, serious U.S. president defending democracy and standing firm against a thuggish dictator. It was as far as one could get from his predecessor’s cringeworthy performance in Helsinki — when the former president sided with Putin over his own intelligence community.
In keeping with his goal to stabilize relations with Russia, Biden said, “Bottom line is, I told President Putin that we need to have some basic rules of the road that we can all abide by.” To that end, the two countries will “launch a bilateral strategic stability dialogue, diplomatic speak for saying, get our military experts and our diplomats together to work on a mechanism that can lead to control of new and dangerous and sophisticated weapons.”
Biden sounded restrained but confident as he underscored the constructive tone of the meeting and the benefits of meeting face-to-face. While affirming that his “agenda is not against a Russia or anyone else, it’s for the American people,” he frankly said this was not a kumbaya moment. Should Putin again interfere with a U.S. election, Biden warned, “He knows I will take action.” He also apparently warned Putin about cyberattacks on U.S. infrastructure. This is not about friendship or liking one another, Biden commented. “It’s pure business.”
Conservatives who railed against the summit and feared that it would give Putin a victory will need to reassess their judgment. This was about not concrete results; it was about declaring that the leader of the free world — unapologetic about human rights and confident about its democratic system — was up and running once again.
Biden comes back to the United States with increased stature and unity among allies. He achieved what he came to do in Geneva: reasserting American values and conveying to Russia the risks of its reckless aggression. The point here was not to attain capitulation. “I’m not confident” Putin will change his conduct, Biden said bluntly. But he did eradicate any misconception that the last four years were anything more than a nightmarish aberration and reestablished the United States’ democratic bona fides.