President Joe Biden’s meeting Wednesday with his Russian counterpart came after months of diplomatic wrangling over the details, days of preparation with reams of research and the elaborate construction of two separate lakeside venues for the leaders to appear afterward.
But after the summit had concluded, the ornate French style manor home was locked up and the leaders were jetting in opposite directions home, the state of relations between the United States and Russia seemed about the same as before.
That is not necessarily a surprise, least of all for Biden, who entered the summit with the vague and modest goal of establishing a “predictable and rational” relationship with Vladimir Putin.
Putin’s performance afterward was certainly predictable, if not entirely rational.
Ultimately, Biden set expectations so low for his first face-to-face encounter with Putin that anything more than someone not showing up at all amounted to breaking even.
Even the shorter-than-expected runtime didn’t portend major disputes, according to White House officials. Instead, Biden said it was a reflection the two sides had simply run out of things to say: “We looked at each other like: OK, what’s next?” he said.
There were modest achievements, like a decision to return each countries’ ambassador back to their posts and the establishment of task forces on cyberattacks, perhaps the biggest new point of contention between Washington and Moscow.
But in both Biden and Putin’s telling, the summit wasn’t meant for great breakthroughs. Instead, each said it was about taking stock, being honest and moving forward.
Man to man
Biden’s decision to convene Wednesday’s summit boiled down to his essential view of foreign affairs: it’s all about the person.
“I know we make foreign policy out to be this great, great skill, that somehow is sort of like a secret code,” Biden said at his concluding news conference. “All foreign policy is a logical extension of personal relationships. It’s the way human nature functions.”
Judging within those parameters, the summit seemed to have met its goals.
“The tone of the entire meeting was good, positive,” Biden said, adding: “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.”
Putin gave a somewhat similar description.
“He’s a balanced and professional man, and it’s clear that he’s very experienced,” Putin said. “It seems to me that we did speak the same language.”
Still, he offered no signs of altering malign behavior that has tested the West’s ability and willingness to respond. And he did not alter his rhetoric, decrying Alexey Navalny and denying Russia’s roles in cyberattacks.
Instead, he described a frank and pragmatic three hours that had not led to a deep or emotional connection.
“It certainly doesn’t imply that we looked into each other’s eyes and found a soul or swore eternal friendship,” he said.
Nothing like Trump
An overriding goal of Biden’s team in planning his summit with Putin was to avoid the spectacle that unfolded in Helsinki in 2018, when then-President Donald Trump met Putin alone for two hours and emerged to say he took the Russian’s word over US intelligence on election meddling.
They decided against a joint press conference to avoid a similar scenario.
Wednesday’s summit was undoubtedly different. Even Putin took notice.
“His predecessor had a different view,” he said. “This one decided to act differently. His reply was different from Trump’s.”
Biden, meanwhile, was open about the areas on which he confronted Putin – including election meddling and human rights, which Trump often downplayed or ignored altogether in his meetings with the Russian leader.
Still, for all the differences, there was one similarity. As he departed his press conference, and again at the Geneva Airport, Biden took issue with how reporters were framing his trip.
“To be a good reporter you have to be negative,” he said. “You never ask a positive question.”
Biden did apologize for chiding CNN’s Kaitlan Collins during his news conference for asking what made him confident Putin could change.
But his admonition about negative questions could easily have come from his predecessor.
Skeptics of Biden’s meeting with Putin questioned whether meeting the Russian leader so early in Biden’s term might elevate the ex-KGB spy’s stature on the world stage.
Biden’s aides were mindful of that risk; one of the reasons they determined against holding a joint press conference was that it could potentially upgrade Putin if he was seen standing alongside the American President.
But when Biden sat down with Putin inside the Villa la Grange, he took it upon himself to describe Russia and the United States as “two great powers,” a notable word choice after previous American officials have sought to downplay Russia’s influence.
Even Biden’s old boss, former President Barack Obama, described Russia as merely a “regional power” after the country invaded Crimea.
Putin has long sought respect from the West, even as he tests its limits. Some critics of Biden’s meeting said its absence of firm outcomes meant it amounted to little more than a photo-op that would prove a boon for Putin’s air of legitimacy.
Biden, whose full remarks were impossible to hear over a din of reporters jostling to enter the room, seemed to be making the point that leaders of large, important countries must find ways to deal with each other, even amid their differences.
Same tune from Putin
When Putin emerged after the hours-long summit, he acknowledged the meeting with Biden was “constructive.”
“I think both sides manifested a determination to try and understand each other and try and converge our positions,” he said.
But he went on to perform the same type of equivocal, denial-filled performance he always does when pressed on issues of cybercrime, human rights and Ukraine.
This was not a surprise to American officials, who did not enter the talks believing Biden would magically be able to change Putin’s rhetoric, much less his behavior. Nor was it out of character for Putin, who has often worked to cultivate relationships with American leaders, even as he blatantly shrugs off their concerns in public.
The one difference in Wednesday’s appearance was its reach: Because he’d just concluded a highly anticipated summit with the American president, his remarks were broadcast around the world, including on American television networks.
His concluding press conference came ahead of Biden in a piece of highly planned summit choreography. That allowed Biden to rebut many of his points.
Still, his spin got its highest profile airing in years, and only underscored the difficulties Biden faced inside the talks raising serious matters with a counterpart who denies the very problems exist.
Entering his talks with Putin, Biden made clear that cyber-attacks — and in particular the recent spate of ransomware hacks waged by criminal syndicates operating inside Russia — would constitute a major part of his talks.
Biden believes countries like Russia have a responsibility to tamp down on cybercrime originating in their countries. At earlier meetings of the G7 and NATO this week, he convinced fellow western leaders to include language in their final statements backing him up.
One of the main — and only — outcomes of Wednesday’s talks was the agreement to task experts to “work on specific understandings on what’s off limits and to follow up on specific cases.”
Biden seemed to acknowledge the limits to the decision: “The principle is one thing, it has to be backed up by practice,” Biden said.
And he revealed a telling aspect of his attempts to convince Putin of the seriousness of the crimes: “Well how would you feel if ransomware took down the pipelines from your oil fields?” he said he told Putin.
Biden did not say how Putin responded. But he said he told Putin the US has “significant cyber capability” and would respond to further cyberattacks.
“He knows it. He doesn’t know exactly what it is, but he knows it’s significant,” Biden said. “If in fact they violate his basic norms, we will respond.”
Biden’s confrontation did little to change Putin’s tune when the summit concluded. Referencing the breach of Colonial Pipeline, which the US has blamed on Russia-based hackers, Putin asked: “What do Russian authorities have to do with this?”
The response was not a particular surprise to American officials, who did not enter the summit believing Putin would suddenly change his mind. Instead, they wanted Biden to relay clear consequences for cybercrime, a rapidly evolving threat that Biden wants to at least be able to communicate with Putin about.