Biden-Putin summit: How their first meeting unfolded

U.S. president Joe Biden (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet during the US-Russia summit at Villa La Grange on 16 June 2021 in Geneva, Switzerland. [Getty]
6 min read
Washington, D.C.
17 June, 2021
Analysis: The highly anticipated meeting in Geneva was described as positive by both leaders, but little concrete progress was made.

Joe Biden wants to be seen as rejuvenating America's statesmanship on the world stage. Vladimir Putin wants to look powerful and prestigious. Both are playing to their domestic audiences. 

On the heels of the G7 and NATO summits, observers are looking for signs of what transpired at the first meeting between Biden and Putin, two of the world's most consequential leaders.

So far, all indications are that despite behind the scenes tensions, the meeting was constructive - at least on issues where the two sides have common ground.

"Despite their clear differences, the US and Russia do have areas of mutual interest"

Comments from both leaders following the meeting indicate that they were pleased with the talks.

Putin complimented Biden’s moral character. In his post-meeting press conference, Biden said he thought we - the country - had shifted from the path Trump had taken.

He added, "Maybe they’re glad America’s back."

"The big question: Is there going to be some balance between speechifying and grievances, and exploring areas of common interest? I would hope they'd get past the complaints relatively quickly," Michael Desch, professor of international relations at the University of Notre Dame, tells The New Arab.

"It's not clear if we will know what the real balance is. What's discussed behind closed doors could come out in dribs and drabs."

Swiss President Guy Parmelin (C) leads US President Joe Biden (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin to meet media during the US-Russia summit at Villa La Grange on 16 June 2021 in Geneva, Switzerland. [Getty]
Swiss President Guy Parmelin (C) leads US President Joe Biden (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin to meet media during the US-Russia summit at Villa La Grange on 16 June 2021 in Geneva, Switzerland. [Getty]

Common interests

Despite their clear differences, the US and Russia do have areas of mutual interest. These include the environment, arms reduction, and global stability.

After the meeting, Biden told reporters they had agreed on a bilateral strategic dialogue regarding arms control.

“I think that was the first topic after pleasantries. The two need to establish predictability and stability,” Howard Stoffer, professor of national security at the University of New Haven, tells TNA, referring to the New START Treaty on arms control. "They need to authorise experts to reduce the number of warheads."

Another important area of mutual interest is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also called the Iran nuclear deal. As the US and Iran continue their indirect negotiations for a revised deal, Russia, a party to the plan, has a vested interest in seeing the Iranian economy open up.

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"Russia supported the first [Iran nuclear] deal. There's been a lot of discussion of Russian arms to Iran, and there's the satellite system they've just launched with the Iranians. This suggests Russians are getting warm and fuzzy with the Iranians," Bessma Momani, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, tells TNA. "I'm sure Biden will want some support from Putin." 

Differences on Syria 

The conflict in Syria is one issue in the region where the two parties diverge without much room for common ground, despite their cooperation in helping defeat IS.

As far as Russia is concerned, "Syria is over in terms of regime change, so there is no need to delay Syria going back into the international community," says Momani.

"They do want reconstruction. To get Syria back on its feet economically, it needs sanctions removal. But there is a global movement to not fund the government for reconstruction."

As for the US, she says, "America has given up on Syria. It wanted to weaken IS, but it has given up on stopping Assad. It's no longer a factor."

"America has given up on Syria. It wanted to weaken IS, but it has given up on stopping Assad. It's no longer a factor"

Though it has not come up as a key topic in the post-summit discussions, the two leaders likely at least spoke about basic needs in Syria.

"At the very least Biden and Putin talked about keeping vital humanitarian corridors open into Syria, especially along the Turkish-Syrian border - and from Biden's perspective, not having this linked to any sort of sanctions relief for the Syrian government," David Lesch, professor of history at Trinity University tells TNA

"Perhaps they also talked about ways to improve stabilisation in Syria, particularly in areas where US and Russian forces are in close proximity, and to reinforce deconfliction protocols."

US grievances

For the past five years, Russia has consistently made headlines for allegedly interfering in US elections as well as other cyber-attacks. 

Though there has been no formal acknowledgement of these attacks, US special counsel Robert Mueller's two-year-long investigation found that Russia interfered in a "sweeping and systematic fashion."

Furthermore, Putin has made no secret that he preferred Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. 

Robert Mueller's 448-page report, officially titled the Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election, found numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump Campaign. [Getty]
Robert Mueller's 448-page report, officially titled the Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election, found numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. [Getty]

The implicit acknowledgement of Russian election meddling could potentially have made it easier for Biden to broach the subject at the meeting.

"Election meddling is one area where the US can be straightforward," Lionel Ingram, emeritus professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire, told TNA

"Relations between Biden and Russia are at a low point. Entirely Putin's doing," John Colarusso, professor of anthropology at McMaster University, tells TNA.

"He's staked his career on the revival of a superpower Russia. He's doing Russian affairs the way an intelligence officer might, not a politician with regards to elections."

"Relations between Biden and Russia are at a low point. Entirely Putin's doing. He's staked his career on the revival of a superpower Russia"

Russian grievances 

Russia has their own set of grievances, most recently with a new set of sanctions imposed by Biden. They are unlikely to be lifted anytime soon and point to a stalemate in both countries' policies.

Going further back, Russia remains insecure over the expansion of NATO in its former satellite states.

"We don't appreciate enough in the West that Russia has its own grievances. NATO expansion was at their expense. We talk about the erosion of democracy in Russia, but we played a role in that," says Desch.

"In the 90s, the West pushed very hard for rapid marketisation of the Russian economy. It was disastrous. It undermined the government of [Boris] Yeltsin. It was a confrontational approach to Russia that bolstered an authoritarian nationalist approach to politics. This is a climate we've contributed to." 

These grievances contributed to the tense undercurrent of yesterday's meeting.

A delicate balance of human rights, democracy, and compromise 

When Biden took office, he promised a foreign policy based on human rights. This has already hit a wall several times, as he has ended up delaying or avoiding some of his important commitments, such as increasing refugee admissions and addressing Egypt and Saudi Arabia's human rights records.

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He has, however, spoken up about human rights abuses in China. He has also pushed back on Russia. On Monday, at a NATO summit press conference, referring to the jailed dissident Alexei Navalny, he said, "Navalny's death would be another indication that Russia has little or no intention of abiding by basic fundamental human rights."  

"I think what worries me about the Biden administration is that it might become a prisoner of its own rhetoric. One of the overarching principles his secretary of state endorsed was that there should be a concert of democracies - that democratic political systems will be easier to deal with," says Desch. 

He adds, "On the flip side, if you're not a democracy, we're going to have an adversarial relationship. That principle can be applied too rigidly and can lead us to ignore or misconstrue common interests, or at least make it harder to pursue them. We can't do business with a killer. Even though, of course, we have a long history of it."

Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington DC, covering US and international politics, business and culture.

Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews