GENEVA – In a political career spanning four decades, President Biden has seen American presidents from both parties try to transform the U.S. relationship with Russia only to leave office disappointed.

In his first meeting as commander in chief with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Biden intended not to make the same mistake.

He would make no overtures for a reset in relations, and his pessimism about the prospects of changing Putin’s mind on issues such as human rights would inform his actions.

“This is not about trust. This is about self-interest,” he told reporters at a news conference in Switzerland after a three-hour summit on Wednesday. “This is not a kumbaya moment.”

In setting up the meeting in the Swiss lakeside city, Biden’s aides left nothing to chance.

To avoid falling short of expectations, they played down the likelihood of even modest accomplishments. To avoid appearing weak, they negotiated that Putin would arrive at the venue first, eliminating the chances that the Russian leader would keep the U.S. president waiting by showing up late – a frequent Putin psychological tactic. To avoid any surprises, they decided against holding a joint news conference, which might prompt moments of spontaneity and improvisation.

With expectations set low and pushed even lower by the talks’ ending earlier than expected, Putin and Biden emerged from the meetings with a pleasant surprise: incremental progress on a handful of issues.

“There has been no hostility,” Putin told reporters after the meeting. “On the contrary, our meeting took place in a constructive spirit.”

Biden said the meeting was “good” and “positive.”

Both presidents agreed on returning their ambassadors to their posts. Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov and U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan have been away from their missions for months, imperiling diplomacy at a time of heightened geopolitical tensions.

The two sides also agreed to resume long-stalled strategic stability talks aimed at reducing the risks of unintentional conflict between the two nuclear powers, according to a joint communique issued after the meeting.

They also decided to organize meetings of experts to hold consultations on cybersecurity, in particular on which types of infrastructure should be considered “out of bounds” or “off-limits” to destructive cyberattacks, said a senior U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive talks.

U.S. officials handed Putin a list of 16 sectors including food and agriculture, financial services, communications and the defense industrial base that they considered off limits.

Individually, none of the agreements amounts to a watershed moment, but analysts said that together they constitute progress on issues important to both countries.

“These were clear steps forward,” said Sam Charap, a Russia analyst at the Rand Corp. “Overall, this is probably the best outcome we could have expected.”

The modest technocratic gains stand in contrast to the grander ambitions of previous presidents, who sought fundamentally to overhaul the United States’ troubled relationship with Russia.

President George W. Bush famously looked into Putin’s eyes and got a “sense of his soul,” only to end his presidency with Russia’s invasion of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia.

President Barack Obama’s top diplomat presented her Russian counterpart with a red “reset” button in 2009 – but the relationship deteriorated over Russia’s interventions in Syria and Ukraine, and the harboring of U.S. intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden.

President Donald Trump came into office openly admiring Putin and vowing to improve relations with Russia, but his cultivation of the Russian leader, including accepting his assurances that Russia had not interfered in the 2016 election, never translated into any change in Kremlin policies across a host of contentious issues.

On Wednesday, Putin seemed to mock the history of the American approach to summits.

“We don’t have to look each other in the eye and soul and make pledges of eternal love and friendship,” he said. “We defend the interests of our countries and peoples, and our relations always have [a] primarily pragmatic character.”

Given the vast number of disputes between Moscow and Washington, the two powers are likely to return to rhetorical blasts in the months ahead despite the gains made in Geneva.

But with a stronger diplomatic presence in each capital and plans for future discussions, the two longtime adversaries may be slightly better situated for handling future disputes.

“The Biden team faced a situation where the best they can hope for is to stop the bleeding – to put a floor under the relationship,” Charap said.

The number of issues that could trigger future disputes, however, are manifold.

Biden said he forcefully confronted Putin over election interference and human rights, including the jailing of the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, but any hope for a mutual understanding appeared slim.

Putin made no concessions over his crackdown on political dissent, military intervention in Ukraine or support for the autocratic Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko. When asked about his actions, he deflected, bemoaning the gun violence in the United States, the mistreatment of Black Americans, the continued existence of the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, drone strikes that kill civilians in Afghanistan, and what he viewed as a harsh prosecution of the pro-Trump supporters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

“We feel sympathy for the United States of America, but we don’t want that to happen on our territory,” he said of the insurrection at the Capitol. “We’re doing our utmost in order to not allow it to happen.”

Biden said it was “ridiculous” to compare Russia’s treatment of opposition figures with the Capitol rioters.

While Putin dismissed the likelihood of any newfound kinship, he invoked the Russian author Leo Tolstoy on the possibility of an improved outlook.

“There is no happiness in life, there is only a mirage on the horizon, so cherish that,” he said.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.