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Tensions Are High as Biden and Putin Prepare to Meet in Geneva

Members of the press in front of Villa La Grange, where President Biden and President Vladimir V. Putin will meet on Wednesday.
Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

After spending much of his first trip abroad working to rebuild and strengthen America’s alliances in Europe, President Biden will sit down with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on Wednesday for a summit freighted with history and fraught with new challenges.

Mr. Putin flew in from Moscow several hours before the meeting, which was set to begin at 1:35 p.m. local time in an 18th-century villa perched above Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The talks could stretch for five hours as the two sides engage in difficult topics ranging from military threats to human rights concerns.

During the Cold War, the prospect of nuclear annihilation led to historic treaties and a framework that kept the world from blowing itself up. At this meeting, for the first time, cyberweapons — with their own huge potential to wreak havoc — are at the center of the agenda.

While there is no expectation that the two sides will agree on formal rules to navigate the digital landscape, both Washington and Moscow have talked about a desire for stability. Mr. Biden is expected to single out the rising scourge of ransomware, much of it emanating from Russia, but Mr. Putin is expected to deny having anything to do with it.

The White House has said that Mr. Biden will also raise the issues of Mr. Putin’s repression of his domestic political opposition, Moscow’s aggression toward Ukraine and foreign election interference.

The Kremlin has said that there are areas of common ground, like climate change, where the two sides can find agreement. But for Mr. Putin, the symbolism of the summit itself is important to demonstrate the respect he seeks on the world stage.

Henry Kissinger once said that Americans vacillated between despair and euphoria in their view of the Soviet Union, and the same could be said of Russia under Mr. Putin, who has spent the past two decades tightening his grip on power.

As the two leaders sit down in the Swiss villa, no meals will be served during hours of discussions, and there is little chance of euphoria.

The optimism expressed by President George W. Bush after a 2001 summit in Slovenia, where he said he was “able to get a sense of his soul” and found Mr. Putin “trustworthy,” faded long ago.

Mr. Biden began his trip a week ago in Britain saying that the United States would respond in a “robust and meaningful way” to what he called “harmful activities” conducted by Mr. Putin. The Russian leader, whose advisers have spoken of a new Cold War, told NBC News on Friday that it was a “relationship that has deteriorated to its lowest point in recent years.”

It is the first summit meeting since President Donald J. Trump flew to Helsinki to meet Mr. Putin in 2018 and declared at a joint news conference that he trusted the word of the Russian leader over his own intelligence agencies when it came to election interference.

Mr. Putin said Mr. Biden was “radically different” from Mr. Trump, calling him a “career man.”

“I very much expect,” Mr. Putin told NBC, “that there will not be such impulsive movements on the part of the current president, that we will be able to observe certain rules of interaction and will be able to agree on things and find some points of contact.”

Mr. Biden has argued that a new existential battle is underway between democracy and autocracy, and with Mr. Putin on the vanguard of the autocrats, the American leader faced criticism from some quarters for even holding the summit.

“The bottom line,” Mr. Biden said in a news conference before the meeting, “is that I think the best way to deal with this is for he and I to meet.”

What They Want

President Biden speaking at a news conference in Britain last week during the start of his first trip abroad as president.
Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

President Biden and his aides have been careful to lower expectations for the blockbuster part of his first trip abroad as president: his meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

“We’re not expecting a big set of deliverables out of this meeting,” a senior administration official told reporters aboard Air Force One as the president flew from Brussels to Geneva on Tuesday ahead of the summit.

But that doesn’t mean that the administration and the president have not thought about what they hope to achieve by giving Mr. Putin an international platform — something that critics on both the left and the right have said was a mistake for Mr. Biden to do.

Here are five outcomes that the president and the White House are looking for:

Since taking office, Mr. Biden has received criticism for not taking a stronger stand on human rights. Some critics say he has not responded forcefully enough to the poisoning of Aleksei A. Navalny, a dissident and Putin critic.

The White House disputes that criticism. But the administration the meeting with Mr. Putin as an opportunity to challenge the Russian leader on his treatment of Mr. Navalny and his country’s support of Belarus, which detained a journalist by forcing down a passenger plane.

Part of Mr. Biden’s sales pitch during the 2020 presidential campaign was that he would turn his predecessor’s approach to Russia on its head.

Now, after four years in which Mr. Trump’s ties to Russia were continuously scrutinized, Mr. Biden and his top advisers are eager to present the president as a Moscow skeptic — someone who will not take Mr. Putin at his word as Mr. Trump famously did at a 2018 summit in Helsinki.

The Geneva meeting gives Mr. Biden the chance to draw that contrast explicitly and to be seen as standing up to the Russian president in ways that his predecessor did not. (One difference: Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin will not stand side by side in a joint news conference, a decision that American officials made early on, in the hopes of not giving the Russian leader a chance to try to outshine Mr. Biden.)

American intelligence officials say the Russian government has expanded its use of cyberattacks against the West, and the United States is one of the key targets.

Administration officials say Mr. Biden is determined to deliver a stern message to Mr. Putin about the use of cyberweapons and the dangers of an escalating online war.

Mr. Biden and the administration have been careful to deliver a nuanced message about what kind of relationship they want with Russia and its leader. The phrase they use the most: “predictability and stability.”

Those are not words that evoke the image of a president bracing for an all-out fight with an adversary. In fact, White House officials have repeatedly said that Mr. Biden hopes to work with Russia where possible, even as he stands up to Mr. Putin in other areas.

That may prove the trickiest part of the summit.

If he can find that balance, Mr. Biden is hoping to make some modest progress.

The two leaders might be able to further efforts to reduce the proliferation of nuclear weapons. They might also work together in the Middle East, where Russia helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal. And Mr. Biden has also said he wants Russia to be part of global efforts to combat climate change.

What They Want

President Vladimir V. Putin during an interview on Monday.
Credit…Pool photo by Maxim Blinov

President Vladimir V. Putin has long sought the West’s respect. Now, as he meets with his fifth United States president since taking power, he will have a rare opportunity to get it.

“Putin’s goal is to transition to a respectful adversarial relationship from the disrespectful one we have today,” said Vladimir Frolov, a Russian foreign affairs columnist. “That seems to be in line with Biden’s objectives for a ‘predictable and stable relationship.’”

Russia’s hopes for a thaw in relations during the Trump administration were dashed by sanctions, tensions and tumultuous American leadership. Russian officials now see a chance to change the course of the relationship that is plumbing its post-Cold War depths.

In an interview with NBC before the summit, Mr. Putin praised President Biden for his political experience, something that Mr. Putin’s supporters, nostalgic for a time when their country was an undisputed superpower and treated with respect by the United States, hope could be a sign of the old days.

“This is a different man,” Mr. Putin said of Mr. Biden.

There is little expectation that the summit will radically reframe the relationship, but supporters and critics of Mr. Putin hope that it will at least stop its downward spiral. And there is the sense that Mr. Biden is prepared to engage broadly with Mr. Putin despite his concerns about the treatment of the jailed opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny.

Critics, including an aide to Mr. Navalny, say the summit, which comes ahead of Russian parliamentary elections and as Mr. Putin faces hits to popularity at home, is mostly a photo op.

“He does not plan on signing any agreements,” the aide, Leonid Volkov, wrote on Facebook. “He’s coming, essentially, for one photo, literally like fans dream of a selfie with their idol.”

A Russian deputy foreign minister, Sergey Ryabkov, told the RIA Novosti state news agency hours before the summit’s start that it was “an extremely important day.”

“The Russian side in preparing for the summit has done the utmost for it to turn out positive and have results that will allow the further deterioration of the bilateral relationship to be halted,” he said.

Even some Putin critics inside Russia hope that he and Mr. Biden find some common ground.

“If they manage to come to agreements on certain things, and there’s a sense in the Kremlin that this was a first step, then this could provide a big incentive to reduce persecution inside the country,” said Ivan I. Kurilla, an expert on Russian-American relations in St. Petersburg and a frequent Kremlin critic. “If Biden comes to Geneva and reads Putin a lecture about human rights and goes home, then I suspect Putin will do everything the other way around.”

With Donald J. Trump in Osaka, Japan, in 2019.

Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

With Barack Obama in New York in 2015.

Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

With George W. Bush in Washington in 2005.

Credit…Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

With Bill Clinton in Moscow in 2000.

Credit…Dirck Halstead/Liaison
A U.S. official said that a solo news conference by President Biden would be “the appropriate format to clearly communicate with the free press” after meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

After President Biden meets his Russian counterpart on Wednesday, the two men will not face the news media at a joint news conference, United States officials say.

Instead, Mr. Biden will face reporters by himself after two private sessions with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, a move intended to deny the Russian leader an international platform like the one he received during a 2018 summit in Helsinki with President Donald J. Trump.

“We expect this meeting to be candid and straightforward, and a solo press conference is the appropriate format to clearly communicate with the free press the topics that were raised in the meeting,” a U.S. official said in a statement sent to reporters this weekend, “both in terms of areas where we may agree and in areas where we have significant concerns.”

Top aides to Mr. Biden said that during negotiations over the meetings, to be held at an 18th-century Swiss villa on the shores of Lake Geneva, the Russian government was eager to have Mr. Putin join Mr. Biden in a news conference. But Biden administration officials said that they were mindful of how Mr. Putin seemed to get the better of Mr. Trump in Helsinki.

At that news conference, Mr. Trump publicly accepted Mr. Putin’s assurances that his government did not interfere with the 2016 election, taking the Russian president’s word rather than the assessments of his own intelligence officials.

The spectacle in 2018 drew sharp condemnations from across the political spectrum for providing an opportunity for Mr. Putin to spread falsehoods. Senator John McCain at the time called it “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”

Health workers waiting for Covid patients on Monday at a hospital complex in Moscow.
Credit…Maxim Shipenkov/EPA, via Shutterstock

In the United States, fireworks lit up the night sky in New York City on Tuesday, a celebration meant to demonstrate the end of coronavirus restrictions. California, the most populous state, has fully opened its economy. And President Biden said there would be a gathering at the White House on July 4, marking what America hopes will be freedom from the pandemic.

Yet this week the country’s death toll also surpassed 600,000 — a staggering loss of life.

In Russia, officials frequently say that the country has handled the coronavirus crisis better than the West and that there have been no large-scale lockdowns since last summer.

But in the week that President Vladimir V. Putin is meeting with Mr. Biden for a one-day summit, Russia has been gripped by a vicious new wave of Covid-19. Hours before the start of the summit on Wednesday, the city of Moscow announced that it would be mandating coronavirus vaccinations for workers in service and other industries.

“We simply must do all we can to carry out mass vaccination in the shortest possible time period and stop this terrible disease,” Sergey S. Sobyanin, the mayor of Moscow, said in a blog post. “We must stop the dying of thousands of people.”

It was a reversal from prior comments from Mr. Putin, who said on May 26 that “mandatory vaccination would be impractical and should not be done.”

Mr. Putin said on Saturday that 18 million people had been inoculated in the country — less than 13 percent of the population, even though Russia’s Sputnik V shots have been widely available for months.

The country’s official death toll is nearly 125,000, according to Our World in Data, and experts have said that such figures probably vastly underestimate the true tally.

While the robust United States vaccination campaign has sped the nation’s recovery, the virus has repeatedly confounded expectations. The inoculation campaign has also slowed in recent weeks.

Unlike many of the issues raised at Wednesday’s summit, and despite the scientific achievement that safe and effective vaccines represent, the virus follows its own logic — mutating and evolving — and continues to pose new and unexpected challenges for both leaders and the world at large.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia “doesn’t necessarily want a more stable or predictable relationship” with the United States, one expert said.
Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

The most pressing, vexing item on President Biden’s agenda while in Europe may be managing the United States’ relationship with a disruptive Russia. He has sought support from allies to that end, but no part of the trip is more fraught than the daylong meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin on Wednesday.

Upon arriving in Britain last week before meeting with European leaders rattled by Russia’s aggressive movement of troops along Ukraine’s borders, Mr. Biden said the world was at “an inflection point,” with democratic nations needing to stand together to combat a rising tide of autocracies.

“We have to discredit those who believe that the age of democracy is over, as some of our fellow nations believe,” he said.

Turning to Russia specifically, he pledged to “respond in a robust and meaningful way” to what he called “harmful activities” conducted by Mr. Putin.

Aboard Air Force One

David E. Sanger, White House and national security correspondent, breaks down the agenda for President Biden’s first overseas trip.

Russian intelligence agencies have interfered in Western elections and are widely believed to have used chemical weapons against perceived enemies on Western soil and in Russia. Russian hackers have been blamed for cyberattacks that have damaged Western economies and government agencies. Russian forces are supporting international pariahs in bloody conflicts — separatists in Ukraine and President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria.

Mr. Putin has a powerful military and boasts of exotic new weapons systems, but experts on the dynamics between Washington and Moscow say that disruption is his true power.

“Putin doesn’t necessarily want a more stable or predictable relationship,” said Alexander Vershbow, who was United States ambassador to Russia under President George W. Bush. “The best case one can hope for is that the two leaders will argue about a lot of things but continue the dialogue.”

Mr. Biden’s associates say he will also convey that he has seen Mr. Putin’s bravado before and that it doesn’t faze him.

“Joe Biden is not Donald Trump,” said Thomas E. Donilon, who served as national security adviser to President Barack Obama and whose wife and brother are key aides to Mr. Biden. “You’re not going to have this inexplicable reluctance of a U.S. president to criticize a Russian president who is leading a country that is actively hostile to the United States in so many areas. You won’t have that.”


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