The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Biden’s meeting with Putin differed from Trump’s

President Biden meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva on Wednesday. (Denis Balibouse/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Three years ago, President Donald Trump ended his first formal summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin with an announcement that shocked the world: He supported Putin’s claim that Russia had not interfered in the 2016 U.S. election, despite the findings of his own intelligence officials. Fiona Hill, then Trump’s top Russia adviser, later told CNN she had considered pulling a fire alarm or faking a medical emergency just to end the “terrible spectacle.”

Wednesday’s summit between Putin and President Biden struck a markedly different tone. Here’s how it differed from Trump’s norm-shattering encounters.

The backdrop

Relations between the United States and Russia are significantly more strained than they were during the Trump administration. Since taking office, Biden has imposed sweeping new sanctions against Russia for alleged cyberattacks and human rights abuses. He has also said he agrees Putin is a “killer.”

While the Trump administration also imposed numerous sanctions against Russia, they had little effect and often appeared to be at odds with Trump’s flattering comments about Putin. Biden’s meeting with the Russian leader had a different tenor even before it began: Rather than making gestures of friendship, he said he planned to take the opportunity to make clear that the United States would not tolerate any wrongdoing.

The setup

While Putin is known for making other world leaders wait and was 45 minutes late to his first formal meeting with Trump, he arrived almost exactly on time for his summit with Biden. The leaders’ arrivals were deliberately staggered, with Putin scheduled to arrive first, which some saw as a win for Biden.

Even though the discussions were expected to stretch for up to five hours, no meal was served during the summit, meaning there was no symbolic breaking of bread. (Ultimately, the talks wrapped up after about three hours.)

In 2018, Trump and Putin memorably held a joint news conference after their meeting in Helsinki. On Wednesday, however, Biden and Putin addressed reporters separately — a move that emphasized the leaders’ distance and also eliminated any opportunities for one-upmanship.

“This is not a contest about who can do better in front of a press conference or try to embarrass each other,” Biden said Sunday.

The attendees

Though Trump met with Putin at least five times, much of what was said remains a mystery. During the Helsinki summit, everyone but interpreters were told to leave the room. After a meeting in Germany, Trump confiscated his interpreter’s notes and demanded the details of the discussion be kept secret from other administration officials. The result was an unusual gap in the public record — as The Washington Post’s Greg Miller has reported, even classified files have no record of what went on behind closed doors.

By contrast, Biden was accompanied by Secretary of State Antony Blinken during the first of two sessions and by aides in a second expanded meeting.

The takeaway

In separate remarks to reporters after Wednesday’s summit, rather than a joint news conference, both Biden and Putin said the meeting had been constructive. But while the two leaders struck a largely positive tone, tensions were apparent. Putin continued to deny Russian involvement in cyberattacks and dismissed questions about the treatment of opposition activist Alexei Navalny.

In a clear contrast to Trump’s comments at the 2018 Helsinki summit, Biden showed little sign of being persuaded by those arguments. He said that he had emphasized the need to have “some basic rules of the road that we can all abide by,” and made clear that the United States would continue to “raise issues of fundamental human rights.”

Read more:

Putin’s rocky relationship with American presidents

Trump’s shadow still looms over cloudy skies at G-7 summit

Putin swaggers toward summit with Biden as an old hand at dueling with the West