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Biden-Putin summit: Key takeaways from an 'all business' meeting in Geneva

Biden said he'd made it clear to Putin that even as the U.S. seeks areas of common ground, it is prepared to act against Russia if warranted.
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GENEVA — President Joe Biden said Wednesday that he made it clear in his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin that the U.S. will act 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 in a news conference after the meeting that the tone was good and that the talks weren't conducted in a "hyperbolic atmosphere." He acknowledged that it will take time to know whether there will be any significant progress and that he wasn't confident that 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 met with Putin for just under four hours, slightly shorter than White House officials had expected but plenty of time to cover critical issues, Biden said. He spoke to the media after 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 saying he was looking to lay down America's red lines — and outline the consequences to Putin should Russia cross those — to de-escalate tensions. 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 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 that if Putin violates basic norms, Russia 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 that he expects Russia to act against groups in its territory carrying out ransomware attacks and that officials from both countries will continue talks.

"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 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. 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 home 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.

The countries also agreed to begin so-called strategic stability talks around nuclear arms control, which Russian analysts expected.

"We discussed in detail what the next steps are to continue to take on arms control measures, the steps we need to take to reduce the risk of unintended conflict," Biden said.

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 that "we might be able to find some kind of compromise there" and that Russian and U.S. officials would discuss the issue further.

Two U.S. prisoners in Russia have been of particular focus. Trevor Reed, a former 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 news conference wrapped up what appeared to be a relatively error-free event for Biden, potentially sparing him the widespread criticism other recent presidents faced after their meetings with Putin. Donald Trump drew fire for appearing to take the word of Putin over the U.S. intelligence community about election interference, and George W. Bush was accused of showing a naiveté about Putin 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 news conference, snapping at a journalist who asked why he had confidence that 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."

Biden apologized for the comments before he left for Washington. "I shouldn't have been such a wise guy," he said.

Getting Putin's take

Putin delivered an optimistic assessment but didn't appear to budge on any of the major issues Biden raised.

He said there was no hostility during the discussions, which he said were pragmatic, specific and substantive. He said he found Biden to be a "balanced professional man," adding, "It is obviously clear he is very experienced."

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.

Asked by reporters about actions the U.S. has criticized Russia for, Putin sought to turn the tables with "what-aboutism" arguments, mentioning violent crime in the U.S., the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.