US President Joe Biden’s highly-anticipated meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday comes as relations between the countries are, as described by both sides, at a rock bottom.
Russia has been vilified in the US on more than one occasion so far in 2021 – and blamed for not one, but two major cyberattacks that crippled vital services and impacted millions of Americans. Russia, meanwhile, recently included the US on its official list of ‘unfriendly states’.
The two presidents are meeting for the first time in Biden’s presidency, in Geneva, Switzerland. When asked on Sunday how healthy his relationship is with Putin, 68, Biden said the bond between the two nations is at its ‘lowest point’. But Biden, 78, added: ‘We are not looking for conflict’.
The White House has said the meeting is aimed at achieving ‘stability’. The agenda for the summit includes discussions on arms control, cyber security, diplomatic restrictions, imprisoned Americans, foreign affairs and regional conflicts.
While Biden appears set to quiz Putin on Russian aggression in Ukraine, he will also look to ease tensions between the US and the Kremlin.
In March, Biden agreed with an interviewer who suggested that Putin was ‘a killer’. And when the pair met in 2011, Biden, who was vice president, told Putin: ‘I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul’.
Relations between the two countries have rarely been healthy – but they have slumped to new lows in recent years.
On top of alleged election meddling in both the 2016 and 2020 US elections, Russia and Putin specifically have faced a number of criticisms from Biden and the White House in recent months.
Authorities in the US blamed two cyberattacks, the ransomware hack on the Colonial Pipeline and the attack on meat processors JBS, on Russian groups. The pipeline hack hit the US especially hard as it ground fuel distribution to a halt for tens of millions of Americans.
The attack led Biden to announce sanctions on Russian diplomats and entities, and in retaliation last month, Russia banned its citizens from working for US diplomatic missions.
The summit in Geneva will largely see Putin and Biden attempting to heal existing divisions that have got wider since Biden took office.
Last weekend, Putin told state TV there were ‘issues where we can work together’ with the US and indicated his plans to talk about new nuclear arms control, regional conflicts including Syria and Libya, and climate change.
‘If we can create mechanisms for working on those issues, then I think we can say the summit was not in vain,’ Putin said.
Biden, meanwhile, may raise the fate of US prisoners in Russia, including Paul Whelan, who was arrested in 2018 and convicted of espionage, which he has long denied. Russia has so far refused to release Whelan to US officials, which Biden hopes to change.
Human rights issues are also expected to be discussed, with Biden looking to apply pressure on Putin for the release of the imprisoned Alexei Navalny, who was jailed in Russia after spending months recovering in Berlin from a near-fatal nerve agent attack.
Putin is also expected to bring up the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, which he compared to crackdowns on his political enemies and the arrests of anti-government protesters in Russia, for which he has been criticized for.
Regardless of what Biden and Putin discuss, it appears clear that the US president’s relationship will his Russian counterpart will be less friendly than his predecessor Donald Trump’s was.
Trump came under regular criticism for being ‘too soft’ on Putin. He faced widespread criticism for refusing to back the US intelligence community’s conclusion that Moscow intervened on his behalf in the 2016 US election.
The 45th president was also scrutinized for leading calls for Russia to rejoin the Group of Seven (G7), and for his decision to send ventilators to Russia to combat the coronavirus pandemic. It was also reported that Trump and Putin spoke by phone six times between March 30 and June 1 of last year, an unusually high number of times.
Biden, however, has repeatedly rebuked Russia in the press.
The topics on the table for the summit are aimed at improving the relationship between US and Russia as both sides admit the last thing they want is conflict.
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