US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet for the first time since Biden took office on Wednesday, with significant differences expected and hopes for any breakthroughs low.
Both have stated that they expect their discussions at a lakeside Geneva villa would result in more stable and predictable ties, despite their continuing disagreements on issues ranging from weapons control and cyber-hacking to election meddling and Ukraine.
“We’re not expecting a big set of deliverables out of this meeting,” a senior U.S. official told reporters aboard Air Force One as Biden flew to Geneva, saying the two are expected to talk for four or five hours starting at around 1.30 p.m. (1130 GMT).
“I’m not sure that any agreements will be reached,” said Putin’s foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov.
Relations have deteriorated for years, notably with Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, its 2015 intervention in Syria and U.S. charges – denied by Moscow – of its meddling in the 2016 election that brought Donald Trump to the White House.
They sank further in March when Biden said he thought Putin was a “killer”, prompting Russia to recall its ambassador to Washington for consultations. The United States recalled its ambassador in April.
According to the senior US source, the US sought for a series of “taskings” – Washington jargon for assigning aides to work on specific problems – “about areas where working together can advance our national interests and make the world safer.”
Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, said the two presidents will decide whether to send back diplomats. “Today the presidents will need to determine how to proceed with the heads of the diplomatic missions,” Russian news media cited Peskov as saying.
While the issues may be vexing, the surroundings will be serene when the presidents meet in Villa La Grange, an elegant mansion set in a 30-hectare (nearly 75-acre) park overlooking Lake Geneva.
On Wednesday, the summit perimeter was under a tight lockdown with heavy police presence. Following a their bilateral meeting, Biden and Putin will continue on to their discussions with broader U.S. and Russian delegations including U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, along with interpreters.
Arms control is one domain where progress has historically been possible despite wider disagreements.
Russia and the United States renewed the New START pact, which restricts their deployed strategic nuclear warheads and limits the land- and submarine-based missiles and bombers that can launch them, for another five years in February.
According to a senior US source, Biden will also designate areas of critical national interest where Russian wrongdoing will result in a reaction. In April, Biden signed an executive order granting Washington broad authority to impose penalties on Moscow.
The meetings will not involve any meals, and Putin and Biden are likely to have separate press briefings rather than a combined one.
“No breaking of bread,” said the senior U.S. official.
Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat, told Reuters Putin wanted respectful ties and to be treated like members of the Soviet Politburo were in the 1960s-1980s, with “a symbolic recognition of Russia’s geopolitical parity with the U.S.”
“In exchange, they (Moscow) would be willing to cut back on some of the loony stuff,” Frolov said, saying he meant “no poisonings, no physical violence, no arrests/kidnappings of U.S. and Russian nationals. No interference in domestic politics.”
Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, set the bar for Wednesday’s talks low.
“The principal takeaway, in the positive sense, from the Geneva meeting would be making sure that the United States and Russia did not come to blows physically, so that a military collision is averted,” he said.
In contrast to Trump, whose 2018 Helsinki summit with Putin featured a meeting accompanied solely by translators, Biden and Putin are not anticipated to meet alone.
Standing besides Putin in Helsinki, Trump declined to criticise Putin for Russian intervention in the 2016 U.S. election, casting doubt on the findings of his own intelligence agencies and igniting a firestorm of domestic condemnation.
Steve Holland and Vladimir Soldatkin contributed reporting, as did Humeyra Pamuk and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, and Tom Balmforth and Andrew Osborn in Moscow. Arshad Mohammed in Saint Paul, Minnesota, wrote the piece; Mary Milliken and Sonya Hepinstall edited it.