US President Joe Biden’s meeting Wednesday with his Russian counterpart came after months of diplomatic wrangling over the details, days of preparation with reams of research and the elaborate construction of two separate lakeside venues for the leaders to appear afterwards.
Here are the biggest takeaways from the meeting:
The importance of meeting in person:
Biden’s decision to convene Wednesday’s summit boiled down to his essential view of foreign affairs: it’s all about the person.
“I know we make foreign policy out to be this great, great skill, that somehow is sort of like a secret code,” Biden said at his concluding news conference. “All foreign policy is a logical extension of personal relationships. It’s the way human nature functions.”
Judging within those parameters, the summit seemed to have met its goals.
“The tone of the entire meeting was good, positive,” Biden said, adding: “The bottom line is, I told President Putin that we need to have some basic rules of the road that we can all abide by.”
Vladimir Putin gave a somewhat similar description.
“He’s a balanced and professional man, and it’s clear that he’s very experienced,” Putin said. “It seems to me that we did speak the same language.”
New president, new perspective:
An overriding goal of Biden’s team in planning his summit with Putin was to avoid the spectacle that unfolded in Helsinki in 2018, when then-President Trump met Putin alone for two hours and emerged to say he took the Russian’s word over US intelligence on election meddling.
They decided against a joint press conference to avoid a similar scenario.
Wednesday’s summit was undoubtedly different. Even Putin took notice.
“His predecessor had a different view,” he said. “This one decided to act differently. His reply was different from Trump’s.”
Biden, meanwhile, was open about the areas on which he confronted Putin — including election meddling and human rights, which Trump often downplayed or ignored altogether in his meetings with the Russian leader.
Skeptics of Biden’s meeting with Putin questioned whether meeting the Russian leader so early in Biden’s term might elevate the ex-KGB spy’s stature on the world stage.
Biden’s aides were mindful of that risk; one of the reasons they determined against holding a joint press conference was that it could potentially upgrade Putin if he was seen standing alongside the American President.
But when Biden sat down with Putin inside the Villa la Grange, he took it upon himself to describe Russia and the United States as “two great powers,” a notable word choice after previous American officials have sought to downplay Russia’s influence.
When Putin emerged after the hours-long summit, he acknowledged the meeting with Biden was “constructive.”
“I think both sides manifested a determination to try and understand each other and try and converge our positions,” he said.
But he went on to perform the same type of equivocal, denial-filled performance he always does when pressed on issues of cybercrime, human rights and Ukraine.
This was not a surprise to American officials, who did not enter the talks believing Biden would magically be able to change Putin’s rhetoric, much less his behavior. Nor was it out of character for Putin, who has often worked to cultivate relationships with American leaders, even as he blatantly shrugs off their concerns in public.
The one difference in Wednesday’s appearance was its reach: Because he’d just concluded a highly anticipated summit with the American President, his remarks were broadcast around the world, including on American television networks.
His concluding press conference came ahead of Biden in a piece of highly planned summit choreography. That allowed Biden to rebut many of his points.
The threat of cyberwar:
Entering his talks with Putin, Biden made clear that cyber-attacks — and in particular the recent spate of ransomware hacks waged by criminal syndicates operating inside Russia — would constitute a major part of his talks.
Biden believes countries like Russia have a responsibility to tamp down on cybercrime originating in their countries. At earlier meetings of the G7 and NATO this week, he convinced fellow western leaders to include language in their final statements backing him up.
One of the main — and only — outcomes of Wednesday’s talks was the agreement to task experts to “work on specific understandings on what’s off-limits and to follow up on specific cases.”
Biden seemed to acknowledge the limits to the decision: “The principle is one thing, it has to be backed up by practice,” Biden said.
And he revealed a telling aspect of his attempts to convince Putin of the seriousness of the crimes: “Well how would you feel if ransomware took down the pipelines from your oil fields?” he said he told Putin.
Biden did not say how Putin responded. But he said he told Putin the US has “significant cyber capability” and would respond to further cyberattacks.
“He knows it. He doesn’t know exactly what it is, but he knows it’s significant,” Biden said. “If in fact they violate his basic norms, we will respond.” (CNN)
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