GENEVA — President Joe Biden said during a news conference following his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin that he made clear the U.S. will take action against Russia if it continues with behavior that harms America’s interests — even as Washington keeps trying to find areas of common ground.
Biden said that the tone of the meeting was good and that the talks weren’t done in a “hyperbolic atmosphere.” But he acknowledged that it will take time to know if any significant progress will come as a result of the conversation and that he wasn’t confident he had done anything to change Putin’s behavior.
“I think there’s a genuine prospect to significantly improve the relations between our two countries without us giving up a single solitary thing based on principles and our values,” he said.
Biden spoke to reporters after meeting with Putin for just under four hours, slightly shorter than White House officials had anticipated, but plenty of time to cover critical issues, Biden said. His remarks followed a solo press conference by Putin, who struck a cordial tone but didn’t appear to cede any ground on the key issues of cyberattacks, aggression toward Ukraine or human rights violations.
Biden now heads back to Washington, capping a weeklong swing through Europe.
He headed into the summit with Putin saying he was looking to lay down America’s red lines — and outline the consequences to Putin should Russia cross those — in an effort to de-escalate tensions between the two countries. U.S.-Russian relations have hit a low point, the two leaders agreed, and Biden had said he is seeking a “stable and predictable” relationship with Russia.
Setting cyber expectations
Going into the meeting, Biden said a key issue would be a string of cyberattacks against the U.S. by Russian groups. In just the two months since Biden invited Putin to meet, Russian hackers have been linked to cyberattacks targeting U.S. government agencies, a major meat producer and the largest fuel pipeline on the East Coast.
Biden said he warned Putin that the U.S. has significant cyber capabilities and if Putin violates basic norms, it will be met with a response in that space. He said he gave Putin a list of 16 entities critical to the U.S. infrastructure that should be off limits.
Biden said he is expecting Russia to take action against groups in its territory carrying out ransomware attacks, and that officials from both countries will continue talks around that area.
“Responsible countries need to take action against criminals who conduct ransomware activities on their territory,” Biden said. “So we agreed to task experts in both our countries to work on specific understandings about what’s off limits and to follow up on specific cases.”
Pressing on human rights
Appearing to speak more to a domestic audience, Biden said he would continue to call out Russia for human rights violations, saying that doing so was core to America’s values.
“Human rights is going to always be on the table, I told him,” he said. “It’s not about just going after Russia when they violate human rights, it’s about who we are. How could I be the president of the United States of America, and not speak out against the violation of human rights.”
He said he spoke to Putin about the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny and what would happen should he die in detention.
“I made it clear to him that I believe the consequences of that would be devastating for Russia,” Biden said.
Looking for common ground
Leading up to the meeting, administration officials downplayed the prospects of any agreements being reached. But the two sides did make some progress on a couple of fronts.
The two countries will allow their ambassadors to return to their overseas posts after both were pressured to return to their home countries in April when Biden announced a new round of sanctions against Russia and the expulsion of Russian diplomats in response to election interference, cyberattacks and other allegations.
Both nations also agreed to begin so-called strategic stability talks around nuclear arms control, something Russian analysts were anticipating.
“We discussed in detail what the next steps are to continue to take on arms control measures,” Biden said. “The steps we need to take to reduce the risk of unintended conflict.”
The leaders also discussed working on a potential prisoner swap. They reached no agreement, but Biden said the families of those prisoners should be hopeful. Putin said “we might be able to find some kind of compromise there” and that Russian and U.S. officials would be discussing the issue further.
Two U.S. prisoners in Russia have been of particular focus. Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine who was sentenced last year to nine years in a Russian prison, was diagnosed with Covid-19 last month, and his family is struggling to get updates about his condition. And Paul Whelan, another former Marine, was also detained in Russia and sentenced to 16 years in prison last year.
Dodging painful headlines — and rhetorical land mines
The press conference wrapped up what appeared to be a relatively error-free event for Biden, potentially sparing him the widespread criticism faced by other recent presidents following their own meetings with Putin. Donald Trump drew fire for appearing to take the word of Putin over the U.S. intelligence community on election interference, and George W. Bush was accused of showing a naïveté about the Russian leader for his comments about seeing into Putin’s soul.
White House officials were conscious of trying to avoid such errors, a person familiar with the planning said.
Biden did appear to lose his cool at the end of the press conference, snapping at one journalist who asked why he had confidence Putin would change his behavior.
“I’m not confident he’ll change his behavior. What the hell — what do you do all the time? When did I say I was confident?” he shot back before defending his position as “just stating a fact.”
“If you don’t understand that,” he said of his explanation, “you’re in the wrong business.”
But before departing for Washington, Biden apologized for the comments. “I shouldn’t have been such a wise guy,” he said.
Getting Putin’s take
Putin, for his part, delivered an optimistic assessment of the meeting, but didn’t appear to budge on any of the major issues Biden raised.
He said there was no hostility during the discussions, and called the talks pragmatic, specific and substantive. The Russian leader said he found Biden a “balanced professional man, it is obviously clear he is very experienced.”
But he took no responsibility for many of the key issues on which Biden has said Russia needs to change its behavior, including cyberattacks, aggression against Ukraine and human rights violations within Russia. Putin said the U.S. was at fault for the deterioration in relations and suggested that Washington was behind the opposition groups that Russia has outlawed.
When asked by reporters about actions the U.S. has criticized Russia for, Putin sought to turn the tables with whataboutism arguments, mentioning violent crime in the U.S., the Guantánamo Bay prison and the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.