The US president, Joe Biden, is due to meet Russia’s Vladimir Putin in Geneva in a highly anticipated summit meant to prevent the two countries’ rivalry from descending into open conflict.
Biden has said he is seeking “stable, predictable” relations with Russia despite claims that Putin has interfered in American elections, provoked wars with his neighbours, and sought to crush dissent by jailing opposition leaders.
Putin brings his own list of grievances to Geneva in his first trip abroad since the outbreak of the coronavirus in 2020. He has expressed anger about US support for Ukraine’s government and claims of opposition backing in Russia and neighbouring Belarus, as well as the expansion of Nato into eastern Europe.
While the two sides may seek common ground on issues such as nuclear arms control, there are numerous tripwires that could derail the conversation, prompting expectations of a careful summit that both sides attempt to navigate without causing a scandal. One analyst described the upcoming meeting as “housekeeping” after a long period of paralysing disfunction between Russia and the US.
Wednesday’s summit is the first meeting between US and Russian leaders since Putin met Donald Trump in Helsinki in 2018. In a meeting seen as deeply embarrassing for the U S, Trump appeared to kowtow to Putin by rejecting his own FBI’s assessment that Russia had interfered in the 2016 US presidential elections. “President Putin says it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be,” he told journalists. An aide later said she had considered faking a medical emergency to end the joint press conference.
Biden appears to be taking no chances of a repeat on Wednesday. The two presidents are to meet senior diplomatic and military advisers at an 18th-century villa in Geneva’s Parc de La Grange before holding separate press conferences on Wednesday evening. Hundreds of journalists have flown in for the talks, which will shut down much of the city centre, including the picturesque coastline of Lake Geneva.
Nonetheless, Biden is under pressure for agreeing to meet Putin without any preconditions, gifting the Russian leader the prestige of a presidential summit with little expectation of any concessions or even progress in the relationship. His advisers reportedly told him not to appear with Putin after the talks. “This is not a contest about who can do better in front of a press conference or try to embarrass each other,” Biden said last week, explaining the decision.
The talks have also raised concerns among Russia’s neighbours such as Ukraine, where President Volodymyr Zelenskiy sought an audience with Biden to argue the country’s case for Nato membership before this week’s summit. The US has left the door open to Ukraine’s accession to the alliance, but did not take meaningful steps to speed up that process.
Putin appeared defiant in a US television interview last week, refusing to give guarantees that the opposition leader Alexei Navalny will get out of prison alive and comparing his movement to the US protesters who stormed the US Capitol on 6 January.
He also dangled the possibility of arranging a trade for two Americans imprisoned in Russia – the former US Marine Trevor Reed, and Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate executive. He said Moscow would seek the release of imprisoned Russians, including Konstantin Yaroshenko, a pilot arrested in May 2010 in Liberia on charges of conspiracy to smuggle drugs, and handed over to the Drugs Enforcement Administration, which flew him to the US for trial.
“We have a saying: ‘Don’t be mad at the mirror if you are ugly,’” Putin told an NBC journalist, accusing the US of hypocrisy.
The summit is expected to cover a wide range of topics, including strategic stability, regional conflicts, climate, the coronavirus pandemic, cybersecurity and more. There is little expected in terms of concrete deliverables from the talks but the White House has made a bet that meeting Putin and holding talks is better than the alternative.