Unlike 2018, the two men did not appear next to each other at a news conference, instead holding separate ones, with Putin going first.
Here are a few takeaways.
1. A contrast to Trump, while avoiding direct threats
For basically the entirety of his administration, Trump bent over backward to see the best in Putin. Perhaps the most significant example was Trump signaling he believed Putin’s denials about 2016 election interference. “I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia,” Trump said, as he stood next to Putin in Helsinki. “I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
Trump claimed the next day that he had misspoken and that he meant to say, “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be.” But he had repeatedly cast doubt on Russia’s culpability, and his course reversal was highly suspect.
Biden, perhaps not surprisingly, sought to strike a different tone. It was one that, somewhat similar to Trump’s, emphasized the importance of working together rather than pitching Russia as an irredeemable adversary. But unlike Trump’s, it also sought repeatedly to emphasize human rights and foreign interference like cyberattacks — albeit with relatively little specificity about consequences.
“Human rights is going to always be on the table,” Biden said. “It’s not about just going after Russia when they violate human rights. It’s about who we are. How could I be the president of the United States of America and not speak out against the violation of human rights?”
Biden pitched the consequences as being less about the United States, and more about Russia sacrificing its role in the world.
“Understand when you run a country that does not abide by international norms, and yet you need those international norms to be somehow managed so that you can participate in the benefits that flow from them, it hurts you,” he said.
Biden said he made no direct threats to Putin in their conversations, but he did talk generally about consequences if Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny died in prison. Those consequences generally involved Russia marginalizing itself from the international community.
“I made it clear to him that I believe the consequences of that would be devastating for Russia,” Biden said.
Biden also declined to lay out specifics when it came to penalties for Russia engaging in another cyber attack on infrastructure, similar to the Colonial Pipeline.
“I pointed out to him, we have significant cyber capability. He knows it — he doesn’t know exactly what it is, but it’s significant. If in fact, they violate these basic norms, we will respond. Cyber. He knows.”
Biden acknowledged that his broad comments about human rights — rather than more directly calling out Russia and making threats — might not satisfy everyone.
“That’s not a satisfying answer: ‘Biden said he’d invade Russia’ — you know, by the way, that was a joke. That’s not true,” Biden said. “But my generic point is it is more complicated than that.”
2. A terse exchange
By the end of the news conference, Biden engaged in a terse exchange with a CNN reporter who pressed him, as he walked away, on whether he was tough enough with Putin. The reporter asked “Why are you so confident he’ll change his behavior, Mr. President?”
Biden bristled and disputed the premise.
“I’m not confident,” Biden said, turning back toward the gathered press. “I said what will change their behavior is if the rest of the world reacts to them and it diminishes their standing in the world. I’m not confident of anything. I’m just stating the facts.”
Biden indeed hadn’t necessarily predicted success, instead saying, “We’ll find out within the next six months to a year whether or not we actually have a strategic dialogue that matters.”
The reporter noted that Putin had earlier continued to dispute Russia’s role in cyberattacks and human rights abuses, including on Navalny, even after meeting with Biden.
“If you don’t understand that, you’re in the wrong business,” Biden shot back.
Biden later made a point to apologize, telling reporters before boarding a flight home, “I owe my last questioner an apology. I shouldn’t have been such a wise guy with the last answer I gave.”
3. Nobody’s talking about a Cold War
Biden repeatedly downplayed the idea of a new “Cold War” between the United States and Russia, saying this wasn’t his or — he believed — Putin’s goal.
“I think that the last thing he wants now is a Cold War,” Biden said. “But I’m not quoting him, which I don’t think is appropriate.”
Biden again emphasized diplomacy rather than conflict.
“This is not a kumbaya moment, as we used to say back in the ’60s in the United States — like, let’s hug, love each other,” Biden said, while adding of Putin not wanting another Cold War: “I truly believe he thinks that. He understands that.”
4. Biden on Putin’s ‘ridiculous’ use of Jan. 6 to deflect
This was a key point of contention between the two news conferences.
The pro-Trump mob’s Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was hardly a proud moment for the United States. Rioters violently trying to overturn an election was the kind of scene you see in other, less-developed countries, but Americans liked to think it wouldn’t ever happen here.
Putin on Wednesday sought to again use the attack and its aftermath to call into question the United States’ moral high ground. He used it to deflect from questions about Russia’s human rights record, including the poisoning of Navalny.
“As for who is killing whom or are throwing whom in jail, people came to the U.S. Congress with political demands,” Putin said. “Over 400 people had criminal charges placed on them. They face prison sentences. … They’re being called domestic terrorists.”
Putin specifically cited Ashli Babbitt, a rioter who was fatally shot by police while trying to break into an area close to lawmakers.
“One person was simply shot on the spot by the police, although they were not threatening the police with any weapons. In many countries, the same thing happens that happens in our country,” Putin said. “I’d like to stress once more that we sympathize with what happened in the United States, but we have no desire to allow the same thing to happen in our country.”
Putin’s comments come after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently accused the United States of “persecuting” the Jan. 6 Capitol rioters. Putin later echoed those comments, speaking of the Capitol riots as if they merely had “political requests” and likening them to political prisoners by saying they were being “detained.”
Biden later called it a “ridiculous comparison.”
“It’s one thing for literally criminals to break through cordon, go into the Capitol, kill a police officer and be held accountable,” Biden said, contrasting that to “people objectively marching on the capital and saying, ‘You are not allowing me to speak freely. You’re not allowing me to do A, B, C, D.’ ”