White House downplays expectations ahead of Biden-Putin summit

·6 min read

GENEVA — President Joe Biden arrived Tuesday in Switzerland for his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin amid a decade of stark deterioration in relations between their two countries.

White House officials have increasingly downplayed their expectations for the meeting. National security adviser Jake Sullivan said he doesn't expect any significant outcomes.

Biden, asked before he left Brussels, where he was meeting with NATO members, whether he could reach an understanding with Putin on cyberattacks, quipped in response: "Who knows, at this point?"

The lack of expected results is in sharp contrast with the long list of U.S. complaints: recent ransomware attacks on critical U.S. infrastructure, election interference, increasing aggression toward Ukraine and Putin's crackdowns on political opposition.

Little progress is expected on resolving those issues. The best-case scenario for Biden, several people familiar with the planning said, is likely to be an error-free summit and headlines back home saying he delivered a tough message, in contrast to former President Donald Trump's chummy attitude toward Putin.

"This is not a light-switch moment," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday. "This is about the president wanting to do two things, and he's been very clear about it — to tell President Putin directly that we seek a more predictable, stable relationship, and if we're able to do that, there are areas where it's in our mutual interest to cooperate. But if Russia continues to take reckless and aggressive actions, we'll respond forcefully."

Putin and Biden are no strangers.

"I'm not a big fan of Putin's," Biden said in 2006, when he was in the Senate. "I think we should have a direct confrontation with Putin politically about the need for him to change his course of action."

Since then, Russia has annexed Crimea, interfered in U.S. elections, hacked into U.S. companies and government computers and been tied to numerous murders of political dissidents and journalists.

"Putin today, over the course of this decade, has become way more autocratic at home and way more belligerent towards the United States and the West in his foreign policy," said Michael McFaul, who was the U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration and helped prepare Biden for his last meeting with Putin.

In just the two months since Biden invited Putin to meet, Russian groups have been linked to cyberattacks targeting U.S. government agencies, a major meat producer and the largest fuel pipeline on the East Coast. Putin threw his support behind the leader of Belarus after the grounding of a passenger jet to arrest a dissident journalist, and in the lead-up to the Geneva summit, Russia banned political organizations linked to the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Biden, who has indicated that he would rather focus his foreign policy on China than on Russia, has said he is seeking a "stable and predictable" relationship with Russia. But experts say that Putin isn't looking for the same and that he has little incentive to change his behavior toward the fifth U.S. president he has dealt with in more than two decades in power.

"The problem, of course, is that Putin doesn't necessarily want a more stable or predictable relationship," said Alexander Vershbow, who was ambassador to Russia during the George W. Bush administration. "Since his 2014 aggression against Ukraine, in particular, Putin has seen Russia as increasingly at war with the West."

Biden has said he plans to address the issues of contention between the two leaders, as well as areas in which he says they can work together, such as nuclear security, climate change and the Middle East. Sullivan said Biden will lay out his expectations for Russia's behavior and the consequences if Putin doesn't meet them.

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a close ally who has worked with Biden for years on foreign policy issues, said: "He's going to look him in the eye and say, 'I know who you are, I know what you've done, and you're going to stop it.' You cannot be weak with Putin. You have to be clear with him about what you won't tolerate and set some clear lines, but Putin also needs to realize there is a path forward for a relationship with the U.S."

McFaul said White House officials are keenly aware of the need to avoid the mistake made by Bush, who famously said of Putin at a news conference that he had "looked the man in the eye" and "found him very straightforward and trustworthy — I was able to get a sense of his soul."

Biden has said that when he met with Putin in Moscow in 2011, when he was vice president, he had a very different reaction.

"'Mr. Prime Minister, I'm looking into your eyes,' I told him, smiling. 'I don't think you have a soul,'" Biden told Putin, according to his autobiography. "He looked at me for a second and smiled back. 'We understand each other,' he said. And we did."

Putin said in an interview last week with NBC News that Biden "is radically different" from Trump, whom he called an "extraordinary individual," and he contrasted Trump's demeanor with Biden's long career in politics.

"That's a different kind of person," Putin said of Biden. "It is my great hope that, yes, there are some advantages, some disadvantages, but there will not be any impulse-based movements on behalf of the sitting U.S. president."

The White House said it won't hold a joint news conference with Putin after the summit; instead, it will have Biden brief the media solo, avoiding any reminders of the widely panned event that followed Trump's first meeting with Putin in Helsinki.

The most likely tangible results would be the start of a new round of arms control negotiations, called strategic stability talks, foreign policy analysts said.

There could also be an announcement that the two countries are taking steps to normalize diplomatic relations, including allowing the U.S. ambassador to return to Moscow and the Russian ambassador to be sent back to Washington. Both ambassadors have been in their home countries since April, when Biden announced a new round of sanctions against Russia and the expulsion of Russian diplomats in response to election interference, cyberattacks and other allegations.

"It's going to be a contentious and, in some cases, stormy affair," said Vershbow, the former ambassador. "I don't think the trajectory of the relationship is going to be fundamentally changed, but at least there will be a few areas for follow-up dialogue."

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