U.S. President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, remained tensely civil and cautiously polite before their much-anticipated summit in an eighteenth-century mansion on the shores of Lake Geneva. The press corps less so as American reporters and TV camerapersons were forced to jostle for space with obdurate Russian rivals.
For some European newspapers, that seemed an apt metaphor. “If relations between the American and Russian press were anything to go by then the two nations have a real problem. While Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin sat in frosty silence the media contingents from their respective countries were involved in an unseemly scuffle with each other and officials,” Britain’s Daily Telegraph noted.
“Mr. President, I’d like to thank you for your initiative to meet today. I know that you’ve been on a long journey,” Putin said before the shorter than expected meeting got under way in earnest. “Thank you,” Biden responded. “I think it’s always better to meet face to face.”
But stony faces and body language belied the words. As they spoke, the pair hardly made eye contact, diplomatic observers say, with both mostly casting their glances elsewhere. Biden sat bolt upright; Putin slouched.
And in their subsequent solo press conferences following the talks both leaders made clear the huge gulf that divides them with President Biden issuing no threats but a series of clear warnings. That included emphasizing red lines over alleged Russian cyberattacks on the U.S.
And the U.S. leader warned of “devastating consequences,” if Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, were to die in jail. Several of Europe’s leading broadsheet newspapers, including the Financial Times, headlined that admonition. “It was important to meet in person so there could be no mistake about or misrepresentations about what I wanted to communicate. I did what I came to do,” Biden said, adding the real outcome of the summit would become apparent later.
“The proof of the pudding is in the eating. We're going to know shortly,” he said. That remark sums up much of both media and official reaction in Europe to the Geneva summit. President Biden has come under criticism from political rivals in the U.S. for instigating a meeting with Putin, which they say gave the Russian leader a gift.
But that criticism hasn’t been echoed much in Europe. Seasoned European politicians say a U.S.-Russian summit was needed so that the Kremlin can be in no doubt now of a change of gears in the West since Donald Trump left the White House.
Hours before Biden and Putin met, a former British foreign minister, Malcolm Rifkind, no stranger to summitry, noted: “It seems pretty certain that they will not reach agreement — and may not even make any progress — on Ukraine, or on Russian hacking in the U.S., or on human rights. But there is important common ground on a number of issues, including nuclear weapons arms control, climate change and defeating global terrorism.”
Rifkind hoped the summit may have laid the groundwork for at least some cooperation on issues of mutual interest. Not that he expected the Biden-Putin summit would match the breakthrough encounter between Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1984.
“By the end of their meeting they understood each other better, were impressed by each other’s personal qualities and, most importantly, had begun to trust each other,” noted Rifkind in a Chatham House commentary. He was in attendance for that breakthrough summit.
No kumbaya moment
There was nothing in Geneva Wednesday to suggest to European diplomats or Western commentators that seeds of friendship were sown between Biden and Putin, despite both leaders saying there were areas of agreement, including the need for further talks on nuclear weapons control. Putin said in his post-summit press conference that they “spoke the same language” and called the talks “frank” and “substantive.”
“The tone of the entire meeting was good, positive, there wasn’t any strident action taken,” Biden said. Biden’s emphasizing in his solo press conference that there was no “kumbaya moment” was also picked up widely by Europe’s media. “In Geneva, Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin started a strategic dialogue at slow pace,” France’s Le Monde newspaper said.
Some in Europe question whether there will be any improvement in U.S.-Russia relations as a result of this encounter. “Neither side appeared to be under any illusions about the nature of their relationship,” the Daily Telegraph said in an editorial.
“The Russian president used a lengthy press conference to, among other things, defend his repressive rule,” it said. “Mr. Biden had said in advance that he wanted a ‘stable, predictable relationship’ with Moscow. Few would consider that an unworthy aim. Given the character and record of the man who shows no sign of loosening his grip on the Kremlin, however, that may turn out to be wishful thinking,” it added mournfully.
The same concern was echoed by officials in Brussels midweek. While Washington’s EU allies hope the summit will at least stop what European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has called a “negative spiral” in relations with Russia, they harbor few illusions.
As the Biden-Putin summit began, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell was warning the bloc’s diplomats that Europe’s relationship with Russia is likely only to worsen. Borrell, who came under scathing criticism in February for a three-day visit to Moscow which several of the bloc’s member states saw as a propaganda disaster, said the EU “needs to be realistic and prepare for a further downturn of our relations with Russia.”
He told reporters in Brussels that he placed the blame squarely on Moscow. “The deliberate policy choices of the Russian government over the last years have created a negative spiral in our relations,” Borrell said. “This further downturn is the most likely outlook for the time being,” he said at a press conference held to unveil a report outlining a new EU realpolitik approach towards Russia, the three main elements being “Push back, constrain and engage.”
Not so dissimilar from what Biden was outlining in Geneva.