US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin pose for press ahead of the US-Russia summit at the Villa La Grange, in Geneva on June 16, 2021. Image Credit: AFP

Geneva: Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin started a summit in the Swiss city of Geneva in an effort to dial back tensions between the two former Cold War adversaries that have reached the highest level in years.

The meeting with Putin, the first of Biden’s presidency, may last for more than four hours including talks with a broader group. Both Russian and US officials are keeping expectations low for the outcome, with the leaders looking to agree on a new round of arms-control negotiations and restoring diplomatic links severed in recent years.

“I think it’s always better to meet face-to-face,” Biden told Putin, who thanked the US leader for taking the initiative to hold the session. “I hope our meeting will be productive,” the Russian leader said.

Legendary for keeping people waiting, Putin arrived for Wednesday’s talks on schedule. He and Biden will first meet accompanied by their top diplomats, Sergei Lavrov and Antony Blinken. A larger meeting with more staff will follow. The initial face-to-face encounter of the two presidents will last as long as they want, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told state television Wednesday.

Plight of marines

Biden plans to raise with Putin the plight of two former US Marines who are in jail in Moscow, according to people familiar with the discussions. Paul Whelan was convicted on espionage charges last year and Trevor Reed was found guilty of assaulting two police officers in 2019. US officials have strongly criticised both convictions as politically motivated. Putin said this week Russia might be willing to consider swapping them for its nationals held in US prisons.

The US president also plans to stress the need for humanitarian assistance to Syria and make the case that international humanitarian crossings must be permitted, the people said.

Long agenda

The two men last met in 2011, when Biden, then vice president, told Putin not to run again after more than a decade at the helm in Russia. Since then, the US has imposed round after round of sanctions in retaliation for acts including Russia’s annexation of Crimea, interference in U.S. elections, cyberattacks and the killings of opposition leaders and journalists.

Putin has been undeterred, remaining an obstacle to US foreign policy in eastern Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere.

“I’m not looking for conflict with Russia,” Biden said at a news conference following a NATO summit on Monday. But he said he’ll convey to Putin that the US will respond “if Russia continues these harmful activities. And we will not fail to defend the transatlantic alliance or stand up for democratic values.”

The leaders are expected to discuss a renewal of the New START nuclear arms pact that is set to expire in 2026, according to White House officials who briefed reporters traveling with Biden on Tuesday. The US president believes human rights and Putin’s crackdown on jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s political movement are on the table for talks, though Putin has said they are internal issues.

“Putin is always clear about laying out the ‘red lines’ for Russia and especially will be in the discussion today, which won’t be easy,” Peskov said, highlighting Biden’s suggestion that Ukraine might someday join NATO.

Separate briefings

They plan to hold separate news conferences after the summit rather than appearing on stage together, as Putin and former President Donald Trump did in Helsinki in 2018 — a strong indication of how little expectation there is for any kind of breakthrough in the relationship.

Trump’s joint news conference with Putin in 2018 led to a US embarrassment after he said he accepted the Russian leader’s word that he hadn’t interfered in the 2016 election, dismissing the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies. US politicians in both parties excoriated Trump for the incident, which was seen as a major victory for Putin.

Biden has fended off criticism that he’s rewarding Putin by proposing a meeting so early in his presidency, with aides arguing the relationship is best managed face-to-face due to the Russian leader’s singular authority in his country. Nonetheless, the summit also represents a win for Putin, as it shows that however grudgingly, the Kremlin remains a priority for the new US president.

The summit with Putin was purposefully scheduled to follow Biden’s meetings with Group of Seven nations in the U.K. as well as NATO and EU leaders in Brussels, where the U.S. president said he consulted allies on his agenda for the Russian leader. All of them, Biden said, thanked him for planning the Geneva meeting.