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Biden-Putin summit in Geneva: Could this meeting begin to thaw the latest Cold War?

·6 min read

The Geneva summit was the first meeting of the leaders of the US and Russia at a time of great friction between the two powers, amid accusations and recriminations, and warnings of confrontations sparking hostilities. It turned out to be a significant success, paving the way to detente and an eventual reset in relationships.

That meeting was in November 1985, between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. The two men, who built a personal rapport, met again in Reykjavik a year later to formalise curbs on the nuclear arms race.

Twenty-six years on, the Geneva summit between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin has taken place against the backdrop of relations between Russia and America at a near toxic level. The common consensus was that it held no great hope of any breakthrough.

But although the meeting was shorter in duration than expected, both leaders agreed that it was “constructive” and a range of issues from cyber security to return of expelled diplomats, prisoner exchange and Ukraine were all discussed “without hostility”.

The Reagan-Gorbachev summit was the first between the leaders of the two countries in six years. It had been half that time, three years, since Putin had met a US president, Donald Trump. But that meeting highlighted the deep divisions about Russia in America as Mr Trump, accused of being the Muscovian candidate for the White House, took the side of the Russian President and against those of US intelligence agencies on allegations of Kremlin interference in the 2016 election.

Mr Biden, who accused the Russian president of trying to manipulate the 2020 polls as well, had insisted “he’ll pay a price, you’ll see shortly.” He had called Mr Putin “a killer” and someone who has “no soul”.

He toned down the rhetoric before the summit, describing Mr Putin as “bright and tough ... a worthy adversary”.

Before the meeting, he called it an important discussion between “two great powers” and stressed that it was “always better to meet face to face.”

Mr Putin, after the meeting, described Mr Biden as an “experienced statesman” with whom he could talk in detail for two hours”. The current US president, he added, “is very different from President Trump” — something Mr Biden will no doubt take as a compliment, however it was meant.

The change in tone, and the fact that it was Mr Biden who had invited Mr Putin — earlier than expected following a build-up of Russian troops on Ukraine’s border — meant it would be portrayed as a victory by the Kremlin, according to some analysts.

“Putin’s goal is to transition to a respectful adversarial relationship from the disrespectful one we have today,” said Vladimir Frolov, a Russian foreign affairs columnist. “That seems to be in line with Biden’s objectives for a ‘predictable and stable relationship.’”

Robert Emerson, a British security analyst, said: “There was obviously a degree of animosity towards Putin among the Democrats and Joe Biden after what happened in the US election, but someone who has been around as long as Mr Biden knew how to deal with important summits and important people.”

The meeting lasted around three hours, around half the time initially forecast, with a 40 minute break. It began with just the US secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, and Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, along with translators, and then expanded to include senior aides.

One of the abiding images of the joint press conference held after the Helsinki summit was Mr Trump nodding dutifully when Mr Putin spoke, and refusing to apportion any blame to the Russian president for anything.

It was hugely embarrassing for many American officials present. Fiona Hill, a senior figure at the State Department and a former national security advisor, was so mortified, that she wanted to trigger the fire alarm and, failing to find one, thought instead of “faking some kind of medical emergency and throwing myself backwards with a loud blood-curdling scream into the media”.

Ms Hill, an advisor to Mr Biden on this summit, was among those who counseled against agreeing to a Russian suggestion for another joint press conference. Instead, the two leaders met the media separately.

Mr Putin was first up. The talks, he said, gave a “glimpse of hope” of mutual trust between the two countries. Agreement had been reached between the two sides on diplomats expelled from each country, he said. It was later announced that Russia’s ambassador Anatoly Antonov will return to Washington by July,

The Russians were thrown out after attempts to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election and a united western action following the Salisbury novichok poisoning; the Russians retaliating by expelling the Americans.

While Reagan and Mr Gorbachev had been focused on nuclear arsenals, cyber warfare, and Russia’s part in it, was one of the topics under discussion this time. Mr Putin pointed out that Russia, too, had been targeted with an attack on its health system. He accused the US of ignoring that and “making insinuations”. The Americans had been “provided exhaustive information” but it had not reciprocated, he held.

The Russian president also took umbrage at a question about accusations of Russian instability. “You said the west believes that Russian policy is unpredictable, well let me reciprocate. The US withdrawal from the ABM treaty in 2002 was unpredictable. Why would they do that?,” he asked, “then disrupt and undermine the basis of the strategic stability, the INF treaty withdrawal in 2019. Is that what you call stability? The open skies agreement withdrawal, well, is that what you call stability?”

The highly contentious issue of Ukraine possibly joining Nato, something which the Russians had held would destabilise eastern Europe, was also touched on, said Mr Putin. The Russian president had warned in the past against further expansion to Russia’s borders. In reality there is little enthusiasm among west European members for expanding the alliance, although the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenksky, has claimed that the US has agreed a roadmap to his country joining.

Mr Biden said: “I did what I came to do.” He added that he told President Putin he will always raise issues of “fundamental human rights”, including jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, and two Americans “wrongfully imprisoned” in Russia.

He also disparaged Mr Putin for comparing the jailing of critics such as Mr Navalny to charges filed against the rioters who carried out the Capitol insurrection on 6 January. “I think that’s a ridiculous comparison.”

Neither leader had invited the other for another summit. So no “Reykjavik” moment to follow Wednesday’s meeting but at least there appears to be a thaw in the new Cold War.

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