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Biden and Putin meet at high-stakes Geneva summit

US President Joe Biden’s first meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin since assuming office comes amid soaring tensions between Washington and Moscow, with both sides playing down the prospect of any major breakthroughs at the summit.

US President Joe Biden (L) meets with Russian President Valdimir Putin at the ‘Villa la Grange’ in Geneva on June 16, 2021 (AFP)

US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin have ended their first summit after around three and a half hours of talks in Geneva, the White House said.

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The two men concluded their last round of meetings during the summit at 5:05 pm local (1505 GMT) on Wednesday, the White House said, and Biden himself emerged from the elegant villa where the summit was held shortly after it ended.

Both leaders were set to hold separate press conferences.

Striking a positive note

The two leaders kicked off their summit with a handshake outside the Geneva villa on Wednesday where the two presidents plan to confront each other over the worst US-Russia tensions in years.

Following an introduction by their host, Swiss President Guy Parmelin, Biden extended his arm for his first handshake with Putin since taking office in January.

“It’s always better to meet face to face,” Biden said as the two men sat down with their top diplomats, kicking off the summit, where ghosts of the Cold War hovered over modern-day US concerns about Russian cyberattacks and what the White House sees as a dangerous authoritarian drift.

Striking a positive note, Putin said he hoped the “meeting will be productive” as the tete-a-tete opened.

The setting – a sumptuous villa overlooking Lake Geneva – may be picturesque, but a gruelling diplomatic face-off that could last up to five hours awaits, with no food breaks planned.

“There will be no breaking of bread,” a senior US official said.

Summit expectations

The White House and the Kremlin have sought to downplay expectations for Wednesday’s summit.

But Biden and Putin have both emphasised the importance of a direct dialogue to try to negotiate a more stable and predictable relationship despite the sharp policy differences between the United States and Russia.

Ties between the two powers have remained at post-Cold War lows over Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, accusations of Russian interference in elections, hacking attacks and other irritants.

The two leaders are scheduled to meet for four or five hours at a lakeside mansion.

Different agendas

Biden and Putin are both coming to the summit table in Geneva with their own agendas and non-negotiable red lines.

There will be no talk of a “reset” in US-Russian relations.

Biden and his aides have made clear that he will not follow in the footsteps of his recent predecessors by aiming to radically alter the United States’ ties to Russia.

Instead, the White House is looking to move toward a more predictable relationship and attempt to rein in Russia’s disruptive behaviour.

Biden will push Putin on Wednesday to stop meddling in democratic elections, to ease tensions with Ukraine and to stop giving safe harbour to hackers carrying out cyber and ransomware attacks.

Aides believe that lowering the temperature with Russia will also reinforce the United States’ ties to democracies existing in Moscow’s shadow.

Moscow’s redlines

Putin also won’t be expecting a new détente to mend the rift caused by Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

Nor does he count on a rollback of the crippling U.S. and EU sanctions that have restricted Moscow’s access to global financial markets and top Western technologies.

Putin’s task now is more modest — to spell out Russia’s top security concerns and try to restore basic channels of communication that would prevent an even more dangerous destabilisation.

The main red line for Moscow is Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO.

Summit timeline

For four months, the two leaders have traded sharp rhetoric. Biden has repeatedly called out Putin for malicious cyberattacks by Russian-based hackers on US interests, for disregard of democracy in the jailing of Russia’s top opposition leader and for interfering in American elections.

Putin and his entourage will arrive first at the summit site: Villa La Grange, a grand lakeside mansion set in Geneva’s biggest park. Next come Biden and his team.

Swiss President Guy Parmelin will greet the two leaders.

Biden and Putin first will hold a relatively intimate meeting joined by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

The talks will then expand to include five senior aides on each side.

After the meeting concludes, Putin is scheduled to hold a solo news conference, with Biden following suit.

The White House opted against a joint news conference, deciding it did not want to appear to elevate Putin at a time when the president is urging European allies to pressure Putin to cut out myriad provocations.

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