President Joe Biden said Tuesday it is his “hope and expectation” to meet with his Russian counterpart during a planned visit to Europe in June, a high-stakes diplomatic encounter he hopes can restore a degree of predictability to an increasingly fraught relationship.
“We’re working on it,” Biden said at the White House, suggesting his proposed summit talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin could come as soon as the middle of next month, when he will be in Europe seeking to restore trans-Atlantic ties on his first foreign trip as President.
Biden was answering a question on whether he planned to meet with Putin during the upcoming trip, which so far includes stops at the Group of 7 summit in southwest England and NATO and EU summits in Brussels, Belgium. Those summits stretch from June 11 to June 14.
A meeting with Putin would likely come after those engagements, officials have suggested, since Biden would value consultations with Western leaders before sitting down with Putin. Symbolically, it is also unlikely Biden would make his first diplomatic engagement outside the United States with Putin.
On Friday, Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said he’d spoken with his Russian counterpart that morning but that summit details like a time and place hadn’t been settled.
“We are trying to make plans for a summit this summer in a third country in Europe. No date has been fixed, no location has been fixed. But it’s actively under discussion,” Sullivan said during an appearance at the Aspen Institute.
Where the talks occur remains an open question. The leaders of Austria, Finland and the Czech Republic have offered up their capitals as potential venues. White House officials have specified it will occur somewhere in Europe.
In a phone call with Putin on Friday, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz “suggested considering Vienna as the venue of a potential Russia-US meeting at the highest level if a relevant agreement to hold the meeting is reached,” according to a readout from the Kremlin.
Vienna hosted talks between the US and Russia to renew a nuclear arms treaty earlier this year. The Austrian capital is currently the site of negotiations between Iran and signatories of the Obama-era nuclear deal – including Russia – about bringing the US back into the agreement.
In mid-April, Czech Deputy Prime Minister Jan Hamáček offered Prague as a potential venue for a summit in a tweet. President Barack Obama met there with then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev for a summit in 2010.
And Finnish President Sauli Niinisto offered Finland as a potential venue after the potential meeting was announced. His office said the possibility of hosting it in Finland had been presented to the US and Russia. President Donald Trump held talks with Putin in the Finnish capital, Helsinki, in 2018, causing consternation when he meet one-on-one with only translators present for more than an hour.
Biden initially proposed a summit with Putin last month during a telephone call, and the two sides have been working to finalize details since. Despite deteriorating relations between the two countries on issues like Ukraine and election interference, Biden hopes to establish a clear channel of communication that would avoid undue surprises.
Putin has appeared receptive to the offer, even after the United States applied harsh new sanctions and other punishments on Russia for, among other things, its role in a massive cyberattack on government agencies.
Ahead of the potential summit, US Secretary of State Tony Blinken is due to visit Ukraine this week. Some officials there are wary of a Biden-Putin summit and are hopeful the US President will find time to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky ahead of any talks with Putin. Biden spoke by phone to Zelensky last month, as Russian forces staged a massive buildup on Ukraine’s eastern border that they have since begun winding down.
In other areas – including the continued detention of opposition leader Alexey Navalny – Putin has not shown signs of ceding to US demands ahead of a potential summit. That has led some experts to question Biden’s decision to go ahead with the meeting.
“Is this really the best moment for a Biden-Putin summit? The mere event of a meeting is a win for Putin, but what does Biden or the American people get out of it? If the promise of a future summit was supposed to modify Putin’s bad behavior, that strategy is not working,” wrote Michael McFaul, who served as Obama’s ambassador to Moscow, on Twitter last week.
“Summits must seek to advance concrete American national interests. What will those be in June? I’m having a hard time thinking of even small items on a list of deliverables,” McFaul went on. “Maybe better to wait a bit? Or downgrade as a pull-aside at some multilateral meeting instead.”
In his appearance at the Aspen Institute on Friday, Sullivan said Biden’s goal was not necessarily to change Putin’s behavior but to inject a degree of predictability into what is now a volatile relationship.
“President Biden has indicated in his conversations with President Putin and publicly he believes that such a summit would be valuable in establishing better understandings between our two countries and getting this relationship on a more stable, predictable path,” he said.