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Biden and Putin Say Talks Went Well, but Divisions Remain

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The New York Times
The New York Times
 2021-06-16
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President Joe Biden addresses a news conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Monday, June 14, 2021. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

President Vladimir Putin of Russia, speaking to reporters after meeting privately with President Joe Biden on Wednesday, denied that Russia has played a role in a spate of increasingly bold cyberattacks against U.S. institutions and said the U.S. was the biggest offender.

The Russian leader’s remarks suggested that he was not interested in discussing what Biden had said was a key objective of the talks: to establish some “guardrails” about what kinds of attacks on critical infrastructure are off-limits in peacetime.

For his part, Biden said that he had pressed the Russian president on a variety of issues — and that he would not stop doing so.

“I made it clear to President Putin that we’ll continue to raise issues of fundamental human rights,” he said. “I did what I came to do.”

Putin did suggest that there had been some kind of agreement to establish expert groups to examine these issues, but U.S. officials fear it is little more than a ploy to tie the matter up in committee.

Emerging from his first meeting with Biden since his election as U.S. president, Putin began by saying the talks had gone well — but it soon became clear that tensions between the countries may be unlikely to ease significantly anytime soon.

“There has been no hostility,” Putin declared. “On the contrary, our meeting took place in a constructive spirit.”

Addressing reporters at the Geneva villa where the meeting took place, the Russian president said, “Both sides expressed their intention to understand each other and seek common ground. The talks were quite constructive.”

Biden said, “The tone of the entire meeting was good, positive.”

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President Joe Biden of the U.S. and President Vladimir Putin of Russia outside the Villa La Grange, in Geneva, Switzerland, just before heading in to their meetings, Wednesday, June 16, 2021. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

The high-stakes diplomatic engagement came at the end of a whirlwind weeklong European tour for Biden in which he sought to rebuild and strengthen the traditional alliances that often bolstered the United States’ position during the Cold War.

It was a meeting freighted with history and fraught with challenge.

Biden has argued that the world is at an “inflection point,” with an existential battle underway between democracy and autocracy. And with Putin at the vanguard of the autocrats, Biden faced criticism from some quarters for even taking part in the summit.

In a reflection of the sensitivities of symbolism, the White House insisted that the leaders hold independent news conferences, with Putin speaking first.

“I don’t think there was any kind of hostility,” Putin said even as he then went on to he note that there were “divergent opinions” on fundamental issues. The two sides, he said, were determined to work “to understand each other” and find areas of convergence.

The Russian leader said the nations had agreed that the ambassadors to their respective countries should return to their posts in the near future. He said they would also begin “consultations” on cyber-related issues.

“We believe the sphere of cybersecurity is extremely important for the world in general — including for the United States, and for Russia to the same degree,” he said.

Putin, who flew in from Sochi, Russia, had arrived first for the summit at an 18th-century Swiss villa perched above Lake Geneva. A short time later, Biden’s motorcade pulled up as Russian, American and Swiss flags waved in the breeze under a blue sky with the U.S. 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.

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The limousine carrying Russian President Vladimir Putin, adorned with a flag of Russia, arrives at the Villa La Grange in Geneva on Wednesday, June 16, 2021, ahead of his meeting with President Joe Biden. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

The two men touched on a range of difficult topics, from military threats to human rights concerns.

Some were long-standing, others of newer vintage. 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 — were at the center of the agenda.

But Putin’s comments to the media suggested the two leaders did not find much common ground.

In addition to his denials that Russia had played a destabilizing role in cyberspace, he also took a hard line on human rights in Russia.

He said Biden had raised the issue but struck the same defiant tone on the matter in his news conference as he has in the past. The United States, Putin said, supports opposition groups in Russia to weaken the country, since it sees Russia as an adversary.

“If Russia is the enemy, then what organizations will America support in Russia?” Putin asked. “I think that it’s not those who strengthen the Russian Federation, but those that contain it — which is the publicly announced goal of the United States.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times .

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