GENEVA — President Joe Biden told reporters Wednesday that the tone of his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Switzerland Wednesday was "good, positive," despite discussion of a long list of thorny topics ranging from cyberattacks to human rights abuses.
"I told President Putin my agenda is not against Russia or anyone else. It's for the American people," Biden said.
"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. That's just part of the DNA of our country," Biden continued. "So human rights are always going to be on the table, I told him."
Biden said he raised a number of issues with Putin, including the cases of Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed, Americans imprisoned in Russia; arms control measures; Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny; the importance of a free press; cybersecurity; Russian attempts to destabilize democratic elections; Ukraine; and Belarus, among other topics.
Biden also said he gave Putin a list of 16 items he considered to be critical infrastructure that should be considered off-limits to cyberattacks. He said he also made clear to Putin that there would be "devastating" consequences if Navalny died while in prison, and that the U.S. would take action if Russia attempted to interfere in its elections again.
Biden appeared solo at the press conference rather than jointly with Putin, who held his own session with reporters ahead of the U.S. president's, where he announced that he and Biden had reached an agreement to return the ambassadors of both nations to their respective posts.
The Russian leader said that he did not feel there was "any kind of hostility" during the meeting, calling the session "constructive."
Putin also said that the U.S. and Russia had agreed to "start negotiations" on cybersecurity, but claimed that most attacks originated from the West rather than Russia. He also deflected questions Navalny and human rights abuses, bringing up gun violence in the U.S. and the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
The sitdown between the two countries ended slightly sooner than White House officials had suggested it would, and consisted of one continuous session rather than the two that had been originally planned. Both men were expected to leave for their respective home countries Wednesday evening.
Biden and Putin were joined in the first meeting by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, along with translators. The meeting lasted around and hour and a half. The leaders are now meeting with a larger group of officials, which could last much longer.
Putin, who arrived at the summit site first, and Biden shook hands and exchanged a few brief words while posing for a photo on the red carpet outside the main entrance before the meeting began. As expected, neither gave remarks, and the two leaders did not respond to shouted questions from reporters. Following the greeting, the two disappeared inside, double doors closing behind them.
They then posed for another photo inside the meeting room before they started their discussion. Biden and Putin were seated adjacent to each other in a library, a globe between them in the background, with Biden flanked by his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and Putin joined by his foreign minister. Each leader made brief remarks, with Putin appearing sullen and frequently looking down.
"There are many issues in Russian-American relations that have accumulated and need to be discussed at the highest level," Putin said. "And I hope that our meeting will be productive."
Biden, sitting cross-legged and smiling several times at reporters, told Putin that he believes it is best when leaders can meet face to face. They then sat silently for several moments while photographers jockeyed for a shot and reporters shouted questions that went unanswered.
Security around Villa La Grange, the picturesque mansion and lakeside park where the summit is taking place, had been extremely tight. The park was blocked off by thick rolls of barbed-wire fencing with Swiss police patrolling the grounds. A large section of the city had been closed off with police boats dotting the crisp waters of Lake Geneva, in a city known for its neutrality and international cooperation.
Geneva was no stranger to high-profile diplomatic meetings. Former President Ronald Reagan met here in 1985 for the first time with then head of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev in what was seen as the beginning of the thaw between the two countries. But other than the location, there are expected to be few parallels between the meeting 36 years ago between the Russian and American leaders and the one taking place here Wednesday.
The logistics of the meeting gave Biden several advantages. Since Putin, who is generally notoriously late to events, arrived first, Biden avoided the appearance of being left waiting. Having his secretary of state and longtime foreign policy adviser in the meeting with him ensured there was someone who could focus on recording what happens and can also be available should there be more technical detail covered, said Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia under the Obama administration.
Not having a side-by-side news conference helped Biden avoid the appearance of friendliness with Putin — an error that sparked widespread domestic criticism for former Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump following their own first meetings with Putin.
The White House hadn't expected to announce any agreements to be reached out of the summit, but there could be an agreement by the two presidents to initiate talks around areas like nuclear security, administration officials have said.
While Biden has met with Putin before, much had changed in the decade since their last encounter. Putin has grown increasingly authoritarian at home and hostile to the West — he has annexed Crimea, been linked to the hack of U.S. companies and federal agencies, and interfered in the U.S. elections.
Biden spent days preparing for the summit. Shortly before departing the U.S. for Europe, he gathered in the Roosevelt Room at the White House for a prep session with a group of outside Russia experts — including officials from the Trump and Obama administrations — to discuss a range of views about how to deal with Putin, according to a person familiar with the matter.
“He’s not just winging it. He’s putting a lot of time and attention into this meeting,” the person said.
Biden, who arrived in Geneva Tuesday afternoon, came to the summit after days of meetings with America’s closest allies during a gathering of the Group of Seven leaders, which include Canada, the U.K., France, Italy, Germany and Japan, and a summit of the NATO alliance countries. He said at a news conference Monday that he had told some of those leaders what he planned to say to Putin.
“I shared with our allies that I will convey to President Putin that I’m not looking for conflict with Russia," said Biden, "but that we will respond if Russia continues its harmful activities."
CORRECTION: (June 16, 2021, 6:10 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of a former U.S. president. His name is Ronald Reagan, not Regan.