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GENEVA — For the rest of the world, the Back-to-the-Future spectacle of Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin re-enacting Cold War diplomacy offered a clear silver lining: at least America and Russia are talking again, creating a glint of hope that the two presidents might actually be able to do business.
And if Washington can finally start working with Moscow again, perhaps so can the rest of the West — especially EU countries.
Wednesday’s summit at a villa in the sprawling, verdant Parc La Grange yielded few concrete deliverables, and the main one had a distinctively 1985 feel: a joint statement on strategic stability in which the former and current superpower rivals reaffirmed the Reagan-Gorbachev principle “that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
But relations between Russia and the U.S. have been so awful, especially for the past decade or so, that rewinding the clock to a more hopeful point 36 years ago was actually hailed as an achievement.
So was the fact that there were no overt signs of aggression, disrespect or scorn.
The presidents voiced a litany of fierce disagreements — especially on issues like cyberattacks and human rights. But they were sufficiently cordial that it seemed safe to conclude their first summit would not be their last.
“There was no hostility,” Putin said. “On the contrary, our meeting was held, of course, in a principled way.”
Biden called the discussion “good, positive. There wasn’t any strident action.”
Asked if he trusted Putin, Biden put a spin on one of Reagan’s best-known sayings.
“This is not about trust,” he said. “This is about self-interest and verification of self-interest.”
But especially for EU allies counting on Biden to help them escape what European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called a “negative spiral” in relations with Russia, there will now need to be quite a bit of trust that the U.S. leader can forge a partnership with a man who confounded, and at times infuriated, four previous American presidents.
Biden said that the face-to-face meeting on Wednesday was a crucial start, and suggested he believed he could succeed where others had failed.
“I know we make foreign policy out to be some great skill somehow, it’s like a secret code,” Biden said. “In fact, all foreign policy is just a positive extension of personal relationships.”
But creating that personal relationship will require moving past decades of geopolitical baggage, or what Putin referred to during his own news conference as a lot of rubble or blockages.
Putin reiterated many of his gripes about the United States and also accused Washington of rampant hypocrisy on matters like human rights. In reference to Biden once saying he believed Putin was a killer, the Russian president raised the issue of civilian deaths from U.S. drone strikes in Afghanistan or Iraq.
“Who is responsible for this,” he asked. “Who is the killer?”
But Biden, during his news own conference, made a clear, forceful presentation that appeared to represent the start of an effort to recognize Russia’s interests, while not compromising on Western values, and to erode Putin’s long-practiced victimization routine, in which he insists to his citizens that the U.S. and its allies are simply against Russia and will never change.
“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 rights and fundamental freedoms that all men and women have, in our view,” Biden said. “That’s just part of the DNA of our country.”
Turnaround from Trump
Biden’s approach was a stunning contrast to Donald Trump’s handling of a joint news conference after his own summit with Putin in Helsinki in 2018, where he allowed Putin to speak for him, and for the U.S., and where Trump effectively said he trusted Putin more than his own U.S. intelligence services.
Biden, by contrast, said he had informed Putin of 16 types of critical infrastructure that he said should be off-limits to cyberattacks, and other red lines such as zero tolerance for election meddling.
“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,” Biden said.
But the news conferences also exposed wide gulfs, and how each side has reasons to complain about the other.
Putin repeated his false assertion that the U.S. fomented revolution and a coup in Ukraine in 2014. And he insisted that all the problems in the U.S.-Russia relationship were Washington’s fault. He also accused the jailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny, without naming him, of being a criminal, who chose to be arrested by returning to Russia after receiving treatment in Germany following an assassination attempt. Navalny’s jailing has been widely denounced as political retribution and a violation of the rule of law.
But Putin did call on an array of journalists from other countries, including reporters for CNN, the BBC, and Bloomberg. Biden, by contrast, took questions only from U.S. media outlets.
And Biden’s assertion that the U.S. does not ever meddle in elections drew snorts, given ample historic evidence that the U.S. has interceded in numerous elections, including in Latin America and the Middle East.
For American allies, however, there were some forceful messages of solidarity.
“I did what I came to do: Number one: identify areas of practical work our two countries can do to advance our mutual interests and also benefit the world,” Biden said. “Two: communicate directly — directly — that the United States will respond to actions that impair our vital interests or those of our allies.”
Putin seemed rather upbeat but at one point grew philosophical and, paraphrasing Tolstoy, said: “There is no happiness in life, only glimmers of it. Cherish them.”
Biden was a tad more optimistic. “Now we’ve established a clear basis on how we intend to deal with Russia and the U.S.-Russia relationship,” he said.
In the U.S., some Republicans quickly accused Biden of not being tough enough, especially about Russia’s pattern of malign activity, and for not taking stronger steps, for example, to stop the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project.
But Samuel Charap, a. senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, said that there was a chance Biden and Putin could build a new relationship and that expecting any contrition, let alone an apology, from Russia was unrealistic.
“Ignore the denials; he is never going to admit his sins and seek forgiveness, let alone in front of the cameras,” Charap said. “The question is whether quiet negotiations can produce incremental change. That’s still to be seen but it cannot hurt to try. No major power ever really admits to bad behavior but they do sometimes commit not to do certain things. And sometimes those commitments work.”
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