President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin are planning to meet next month in Geneva, the first face-to-face discussion between the two adversaries and one that comes at a time of deteriorating relations between their nations.
Biden is expected to raise concerns about Russian troops massing at the Ukrainian border, as well as Belarus, a Russian ally, recently forcing a civilian jetliner to land so it could arrest Roman Protasevich, an opposition journalist on board.
U.S. officials are not expecting the meeting to produce major breakthroughs, nor do they consider it a reset in relations between the two countries in the same way that President Barack Obama had hoped early in his administration to usher in a new era of cooperation between the longtime adversaries.
Instead, it is viewed as an occasion for Biden and Putin to improve their relationship and gain a better understanding of each other’s interests and concerns. U.S. officials think the relationship with Putin will be complex and difficult, but they also view Putin as a highly personalized decision-maker and one whom Biden needs to cultivate.
Former president Donald Trump’s relationship with Putin was fraught in its own way. Democrats and others sharply questioned Trump’s relatively friendly relations with the Russian president, especially given evidence that Putin intervened in the 2016 presidential campaign in hopes of boosting Trump’s chances.
Biden took office making it clear that he intended to take a stronger line against Russia. That notion was tested quickly as Russia imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny in early February, prompting demonstrations throughout the country amid indications that Navalny’s health was failing.
In April, Biden sanctioned Russia for its cyberespionage activities and its interference in U.S. electoral politics.
The upshot has been a testy standoff of sorts between the two countries, as Biden seeks a balance between punishing Russia for its misdeeds and leaving the door open to cooperation in areas where the countries’ interests align.
On Tuesday, some Republican critics said a summit is a bad idea, citing Putin’s human rights record in particular.
“We’re rewarding Putin with a summit?” Sen. Ben Sasse (Neb.) said in a statement. “Putin imprisoned Alexei Navalny and his puppet [Belarusian President Alexander] Lukashenko hijacked a plane to get Roman Protasevich. Instead of treating Putin like a gangster who fears his own people, we’re giving him his treasured Nord Stream 2 pipeline and legitimizing his actions with a summit. This is weak.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki defended the meeting with an adversary, saying, “This is how diplomacy works.”
“We don’t regard the meeting with the Russian president as a reward — we regard it as a vital part of defending America’s interests,” she said. “And President Biden is meeting with Vladimir Putin because of our countries’ differences, not in spite of them.”
The Nord Stream 2 is a gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, and the Biden administration decided last week not to sanction the company in charge of it. Critics say the pipeline will increase U.S. allies’ dependence on Russia.
Biden officials say they share those concerns. But the administration is also trying to rebuild relations with Germany, which wants the pipeline, and whose ties to the United States frayed under Trump.
It will be perhaps the most important meeting of Biden’s early presidency. He built much of his Senate career on foreign policy expertise and has long prized his personal connections with foreign leaders. During the Obama administration, he was often dispatched to deepen relationships with high-level officials in Afghanistan and China.
Obama is not the first president to try to reset relations with Putin. President George W. Bush, after an early meeting with the Russian leader, told reporters, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul.”
Biden sought to create a contrast with that sentiment when he met with Putin in 2011, saying he looked into the Russian leader’s eyes and told him, “I don’t think you have a soul.”
Putin, in Biden’s account, looked back at him, smiled and said, “We understand one another.”
Since taking office, Biden has held two phone calls with Putin, and he proposed the summit during a call in April.
Among the chief topics is likely to be a long-lasting agreement controlling each country’s nuclear arsenal. Biden and Putin have agreed to extend the New START Treaty for five years, but they are also looking for a longer-term agreement to prevent an arms race.
The meeting in Geneva will come at the end of Biden’s first international trip as president. He is first scheduled to meet with leaders of the Group of Seven at a summit in England, and then attend meetings in Brussels with representatives of NATO and the European Union.
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