Russian and U.S. Leaders Meet in High-Stakes Summit
After spending much of his first trip abroad working to rebuild and strengthen America’s alliances in Europe, President Joe Biden is meeting with President Vladimir Putin of Russia on Wednesday in a summit freighted with history and fraught with new challenges.
Putin, who flew in from Sochi, Russia, arrived first for the meeting, which is taking place in an 18th-century Swiss villa perched above Lake Geneva. A short time later, Biden’s motorcade pulled up — Russian, American and Swiss flags waving in the breeze under a blue sky — with the United States entourage.
The two leaders were greeted by President Guy Parmelin of Switzerland, who welcomed them to Geneva, “the city of peace.”
“I wish you both presidents a fruitful dialogue in the interest of your two countries and the world,” he said.
Biden turned to Putin, holding out his hand; Putin took a step toward him and shook it. They then moved into an ornate library, where both men sat stone-faced and mostly in silence as members of the news media jostled to get into the room.
“I would like to thank you for the initiative to meet today,” Putin told Biden. “Still, U.S.-Russian relations have accumulated a lot of issues that require a meeting at the highest level, and I hope that our meeting will be productive.”
Biden said a few words before the camera crews were ushered out and the leaders moved into private sessions that could stretch for five hours. The two sides will 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. Biden is expected to single out the rising scourge of ransomware, much of it emanating from Russia, although Putin is expected to deny having anything to do with it.
The White House has said that Biden will also raise the issues of 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. And for 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 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 Putin “trustworthy,” faded long ago.
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 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 Trump flew to Helsinki to meet Putin in 2018 and declared at a joint news conference that he trusted the word of the Russian leader as much as his own intelligence agencies when it came to election interference.
Putin said Biden was “radically different” from Trump, calling him a “career man.”
Biden has argued that a new existential battle is underway between democracy and autocracy, and with Putin on the vanguard of the autocrats, the American leader faced criticism from some quarters for even holding the summit.
“The bottom line,” 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.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .