US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday sought to cool tensions in the combustible US-Russian relationship at their first summit, with the US president saying that his Kremlin counterpart does not want a new Cold War.
The two leaders emerged cautiously positive after more than three hours of talks in Geneva, Switzerland, including two hours alone with just US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov.
“The conversation was absolutely constructive,” Putin told reporters, adding that they had agreed for their ambassadors to resume their posts in a gesture of diplomatic healing.
Biden called the session, conducted at an elegant villa on the shores of Lake Geneva, “good.”
Biden, who was ending a grueling diplomatic tour of Europe, said that he and Putin explored working together on areas where the former superpower rivals have overlapping interests, including the arctic, Iran and Syria.
Biden told a news conference that the two biggest nuclear powers “share a unique responsibility” on the world stage.
However, Biden emphatically warned the Kremlin against any cyberattacks on what he said were 16 clearly defined areas of US critical infrastructure.
Those areas, which he did not make public, “should be off limits.”
Contraventions, Biden said, would lead to a US response in kind — “cyber.”
At a minimum, Washington accuses Moscow of harboring ransomware gangs and also conducting the SolarWinds cyberattack on US entities.
US intelligence has also claimed that Russian agencies conducted a dirty tricks campaign to try and disrupt the past two presidential elections in the US.
However, to suggestions that the world could witness a repeat of the 20th century’s Cold War — when Washington and Moscow spent decades in a nuclear standoff before the Soviet Union finally collapsed — Biden said that Putin knows his limits.
“I think that the last thing he wants now is a Cold War,” Biden said.
Diplomatic relations between Moscow and Washington had all but broken down since Biden took office in January.
After Biden likened Putin to a “killer,” Russia in March took the rare step of recalling Russian Ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov, while US Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan returned to Washington.
While those deep disagreements remain in place, the summit got off to a good start, with the two leaders shaking hands for the cameras.
However, Putin later issued withering rejections of criticism over his human rights record and allegations of harboring cybercriminals.
He instead said that the “largest number of cyberattacks in the world are carried out from the US.”
Putin sought to deflect criticism of his treatment of opponents — many high-profile critics have been killed in Russia during his rule and the media is almost entirely muzzled — saying that the US had bigger problems, while Biden called Putin’s argument “ridiculous.”
The offer of a more understanding US-Russian relationship — if not necessarily a more friendly one — went a long way toward what Putin is reportedly seeking: increased respect on the world stage.
Biden’s reference to the US and Russia as “two great powers” was sure to please the Kremlin leader, who has dominated his country for two decades, infuriating the West with invasions of Ukraine and Georgia, and often brutally crushing political dissent.
US Republican opponents in Washington called Biden naive for his contention that reaching out to Putin would encourage him to bring Russia out of the diplomatic cold.
“It is clear to me that Putin could care less about how he’s viewed by others,” Republican US Senator Lindsey Graham wrote on Twitter, saying that Biden had “miscalculated.”
Unlike in 2018, when then-US president Donald Trump met Putin in Helsinki, there was no joint news conference after the summit.
The US side clearly wanted to avoid the optics of having Biden sharing that kind of platform with the Russian president.
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