The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden, Putin aired differences at a high-stakes summit but agree on little

President Biden spoke to reporters in Geneva following a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 16, saying the meeting had a positive tone. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post, Photo: AP/The Washington Post)

GENEVA — President Biden said he pressed Russian President Vladimir Putin over alleged hacking, human rights abuses and other troubling issues in a historic first summit in Geneva on Wednesday, a session shadowed by the unprecedented deference to the canny Russian leader that President Donald Trump displayed for four years.

The meetings, spanning only a few hours in the Swiss lakeside city known as the "capital of peace," were too short to allow for much more than an accounting of both sides' complaints. Biden and Putin declared the event a success, mostly for their having met at all at a time when relations between the world's two greatest nuclear powers are at a post-Cold War low.

"I did what I came to do," Biden told reporters after the sessions, as he sought to claim the moral high ground and further an argument about the superiority of democratic values that he has made throughout his first foreign trip as president.

"I also told him 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," Biden said.

The summit was designed to stand in contrast to Trump’s interactions with Putin on nearly every level. Biden was accompanied by top aides for each session; Trump had excluded aides from at least one session with Putin and confiscated an interpreter’s notes.

Separate, sequential news conferences — with Putin speaking first — were also intended to dispel the image of Trump standing alongside Putin at a similar summit in Helsinki in 2018. There, Trump declined to confront Putin over interference in U.S. elections and accepted the Russian leader’s denial over the findings of his own intelligence agencies.

At one point, Biden referred to the Russian leader as President Trump, before correcting himself.

Biden said he raised with Putin the case of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, as well as two “wrongly imprisoned” Americans held in Russia.

"The bottom line is I told President Putin that we need to have some basic rules of the road that we can all abide by," Biden told reporters after his first face-to-face meeting as president with Putin, which Biden said had a "positive" tone.

Biden spoke after Putin had framed the three hours of face-to-face talks as a victory for Russia on the world stage and said he can work with Biden in the future.

"On the whole, we spoke the same language," Putin said. "And that doesn't mean we have to look into each other's eyes."

Putin called the talks productive. At his post-summit news conference, he said he and Biden agreed to return their ambassadors to their respective posts in Washington and Moscow.

Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov and U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan have been away from their missions for months, imperiling diplomacy at a time of heightened tensions. Sullivan is expected to return to Moscow next week, a senior U.S. official said. Antonov is presumed to be returning around the same time.

"If you ask me what sort of a partner . . . Biden is, I'd say he's very constructive," Putin said at his news conference, which at roughly one hour lasted about twice as long as Biden's.

"He's very balanced — just the way that I expected," Putin said. "He's very experienced. You can tell that at first glance."

Putin added that the two men did not exchange invitations for either to visit in Moscow or Washington.

"President Biden did not invite me as his guest," he said. "I didn't invite him either. I think for visits like that, for meetings like that, you need to have the proper conditions. You need to be ready."

Putin dismissed questions about Russia's treatment of Navalny and instead referenced discord in the United States, specifically the Black Lives Matter movement and the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

"America just recently had very severe events after well-known events, after a killing of an African American, and an entire movement developed known as Black Lives Matter," the Russian leader said. "What we saw was disorder, destruction, violations of the law, et cetera. We feel sympathy for the United States of America, but we don't want that to happen on our territory, and we're doing our utmost in order to not allow it to happen."

Biden made a show of laughing at those comments when asked about them, calling them "a ridiculous comparison."

Biden came to the summit fortified by nearly a week of chummy diplomacy with U.S. allies in Europe, a signal to Putin that the transatlantic rifts created by Trump and exploited by the Russia leader are firmly in the past. He also arrived with more than four decades of foreign policy experience and previous experience negotiating with Putin, whom earlier in the week he called "bright," "tough" and "a worthy adversary."

Putin also said he and Biden had reached an agreement to start discussions on cybersecurity.

Putin publicly denies U.S. charges of Russian wrongdoing in the cyber realm, including attempted interference in elections in the United States and Europe.

During the discussion, U.S. officials also submitted a list to Russian counterparts containing 16 U.S. sectors that Washington believes should be “out of bounds” and “off-limits” when it comes to destructive cyberwarfare attacks.

The list includes the food and agriculture sector, financial services, communications, the defense industrial base and other industries. “This was given as a list to President Putin,” said a U.S. official familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to address sensitive discussion.

Biden said the two agreed to assign experts in both countries “to work on specific understandings of what’s off-limits and to follow up on specific cases” in each country.

Asked what he would do if Russia violated the norm of not attacking critical infrastructure, Biden said, “I pointed out to him we have significant cyber capabilities. . . . He doesn’t know exactly what it is but he knows it’s significant. If in fact they violate these basic norms, we will respond . . . he knows, in a cyber way.”

U.S. policy has long been to preserve flexibility in responding to foreign aggression, including in cyberspace. Though the U.S. Cyber Command has undertaken operations against foreign adversaries to deter or disrupt malign cyber activities, former officials say, cyber alone is often not the most effective measure.

In addition to hacking , including the SolarWinds intrusion into U.S. government agencies and businesses, the U.S. agenda included alleged criminal cyberattacks, such as one on a central fuel pipeline in the United States this year.

During his news conference, Biden downplayed the fact that the summit was shorter than White House aides had forecast, saying he and Putin had talked about a range of issues in “excruciating detail.”

“Part of the reason it didn’t go longer is, when is the last time two heads of state have spent over two hours in direct conversation across the table going into excruciating detail?” Biden said of the meeting, which aides had predicted was likely to last four or five hours.

Biden said the success of the meeting should be judged by whether there is adequate follow-up on the initiatives to which the two leaders agreed.

The session began with a mix of cordiality and chaos, as the two presidents shook hands and then watched — Putin mostly in stony silence — as Russian and American journalists jostled and shouted during what was supposed to be a sedate opening photo.

“Mr. President, I would like to thank you for the initiative to meet today,” Putin told Biden through an interpreter as the two sat inside an ornate library.

Putin, seated knees apart in a slight slouch, was barely audible over the scrum.

“The U.S. and Russian relations have a lot of issues accumulated at the highest level,” he added. “And I hope that the meeting will be productive.”

“As I said outside, it’s always better to meet face-to-face,” Biden responded.

Biden said he hoped the two countries can cooperate where they have mutual interests and find a path forward on issues on which they disagree.

“Two great powers,” Biden said in conclusion.

The choice of words was notable. While Russia possesses the world’s second-largest nuclear arsenal, its global influence has diminished greatly since the fall of the Soviet Union. In 2014, President Barack Obama dismissed Russia as a “regional power” in response to its annexation of Crimea, and Biden’s description Wednesday seemed to elevate Russia, despite the country’s repeated flouting of Democratic norms.

Afterward, Biden adopted a matter-of-fact tone, ticking through a list of allegations about Russian behavior both abroad and at home.

Biden’s focus on Navalny posed the most symbolic contrast with Trump, who largely dismissed accusations of Russian human rights violations.

If Navalny dies in prison, “the consequences of that would be devastating for Russia” and hurt Putin’s credibility in the eyes of the world, Biden said.

During a trip to Siberia in August, in which Navalny was advocating for voting against Putin’s United Russia party, Navalny was poisoned with a nerve agent. He and Western intelligence agencies said the poisoning was an attempt on his life ordered by Putin.

Navalny returned to Russia after a five-month recovery in Germany and was arrested at the airport. The 45-year-old is now serving a more than two-year sentence in a penal colony outside Moscow for alleged parole violations — charges Navalny and international observers have said were fabricated to silence him. His allies said he was “days” away from dying earlier this year, after he went on a more than three-week hunger strike that ended after he was examined at a civilian hospital.

A Moscow court last week ­declared the political and anti-corruption networks of Navalny “extremist” organizations, essentially making working with them punishable with long prison sentences. As Putin and Biden were meeting Wednesday, a Russian court extended the house arrest for one of Navalny’s associates, according to his spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh.

Biden had issued a meeting invitation to Putin in April, an overture that was criticized by Republicans as needlessly generous, although other presidents, including Trump, have also met with Putin fairly early in their tenures.

Biden and his aides said ahead of the meeting that he hoped for a more stable and predictable relationship with Russia, and to set some guardrails for Putin.

“I’m going to make clear to President Putin that there are areas where we can cooperate, if he chooses. And if he chooses not to cooperate and acts in a way that he has in the past, relative to cybersecurity and some other activities, then we will respond. We will respond in kind,” Biden said Monday after meetings of the NATO alliance in Brussels.

NATO was founded in large part to counter the Soviet Union and remains a particular target of Putin’s complaints about the West. He was said to delight in Trump’s rants against the alliance as unfair to the United States, and his threats to withdraw from the treaty organization.

Answering questions Wednesday in Geneva, Biden touted his efforts earlier in the trip to rally “fellow democracies to make concerted commitments to take on the biggest challenges our world faces,” and said that while “there’s much more work ahead,” he was pleased with the outcome of his summit with Putin.

“We’ve gotten a lot of business done on this trip,” Biden said.

Isabelle Khurshudyan in Moscow and Ellen Nakashima and John Wagner in Washington contributed to this report.