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What does Putin want from the Biden summit? The handshake.

For Putin, merely being invited to such a high-level summit gives the air of superpower status to Russia.
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LONDON — Russian President Vladimir Putin knows Wednesday's summit with U.S. President Joe Biden will not be a friendly event, with Washington-Moscow relations at their lowest ebb since the Cold War.

But Putin probably achieved his main aim the minute he and Biden shook hands, some experts say.

For the Russian president, merely being invited to such a high-level summit by the world's most powerful leader gives an air of superpower status to Russia, which in reality has an economy smaller than that of Canada or Italy, and is seen by some as no longer being among Washington's top priorities.

Putin wants to give the impression that he "and Biden are equals, that Russia and America are equals, and that Russia cannot be, as Putin would say, ordered around by the United States," said James Nixey, director of the Russia-Eurasia and Europe programs at Chatham House, a think tank in London.

Image: President Biden arrives in Geneva
Flags of the U.S., Russia and Switzerland fly at Cointrin airport ahead of a meeting between President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, in Geneva on Tuesday.Denis Balibouse / Reuters

The two leaders are meeting at a highly choreographed summit in the Swiss city of Geneva on Wednesday.

Biden first floated the idea during a call with Putin in April, during which he told the Russian leader he would be expelling Russian diplomats in response to Moscow's alleged interference in last year's U.S. presidential election, which, like all of the misdeeds attributed to his country, Putin denies.

During an interview with NBC News that aired over the weekend, Putin raised the possibility of cooperating with Biden on issues such as arms control, cybercrime and space.

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The White House, however, downplayed expectations Tuesday. People familiar with the planning said the best-case scenario was an error-free event, with Biden delivering a tough message to stand in contrast to the approach of former President Donald Trump, often criticized as having gone easy on Putin.

Some international observers believe the White House wants to deliver a firm message on Russia but ultimately put the issue on the back burner so it can focus on its real priorities: China, the coronavirus and climate change.

The U.S. "wants to spend as little attention on Russia as possible," said Mark Galeotti, director of the consultancy firm Mayak Intelligence, speaking on his "In Moscow's Shadows" podcast this week. "Because there are other priorities."

Nevertheless, Putin probably gave the interview with NBC News "to butter Joe Biden up ahead of these tough negotiations," said Nixey, at Chatham House.

"At first glance, you ask, 'What's the point in doing these types of interviews?'" Nixey said. "He doesn't have to appeal to the American public, he's a fairly secure autocrat in his own country, and he doesn't care much for America or the West more broadly."

The answer is that the interview was not aimed at any of these people, but rather Biden himself.

"Biden is forced to watch this program now, he has to listen to what Putin's saying, or at least be briefed on it in depth," Nixey said. "What does Putin want out of the summit? He wants recognition for Russia's major-player status on the global stage, and a resumption in strategic stability talks."

Few are expecting niceties when Biden and Putin come together. When they last met, in 2011, Biden was vice president and Putin was prime minister, and Biden told Putin, "I don't think you have a soul," as Biden later recounted in an interview with The New Yorker.

In March, Biden, by then president, agreed with an interviewer that Putin was a "killer."

That came after his administration had imposed sanctions on Russian officials after U.S. intelligence officials said they had "high confidence" that the poisoning of arch Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny was carried out by Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB.

In his interview with NBC News, Putin denied involvement in Navalny's attempted assassination, and brushed off the "killer" comment as "Hollywood macho."

Image: People walk under Russian and American flags on a bridge in the city center prior to a meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin
People walk under Russian and American flags on a bridge in Geneva prior to a meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday.Sean Gallup / Getty Images

He said, "Over my tenure, I've gotten used to attacks from all kinds of angles and from all kinds of areas under all kinds of pretext and reasons and of different caliber and fierceness, and none of it surprises me."

During the interview, Putin relied on the Kremlin's time-tested strategy of deflecting criticism by pointing out America's failures, suggesting that criticism from the West was hypocritical because every country, including Russia and the U.S., acts in its own self-interest.

"We have a saying: 'Don't be mad at the mirror if you are ugly,'" he said.

For America's Russia-watchers, such as Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia under the Obama administration, this was a familiar approach.

"He loves to play this whataboutism game, comparing things that are not equivalent," McFaul said on MSNBC on Tuesday.

However some observers have noted a softening of words and actions by the White House in recent weeks, such as announcing waivers on sanctions for the Russian company building Nord Stream 2, a contentious gas pipeline between Russia and Germany that's headed by a Putin ally.

It's also seen as noteworthy that the four or five-hour summit will not be followed by a joint news conference between the two leaders, who will instead speak separately.

"I think that is because reporters would have asked Biden, in front of Putin, whether he still thinks Putin is still a killer, as he did three months ago," Nixey said. "That would be awkward to say the least."