GENEVA – US President Joe Biden looked relaxed, smiling, his legs crossed, his hands on his knees. Vladimir Putin just looked a little more serious, his feet planted, his legs wide apart but not too much, leaning against his chair.
State Secretary Antony Blinken took notes – it was not clear what – as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov sat across from him, looking bored, as is his way.
Putin thanked Biden for his initiative during their meeting. “I know you’ve come a long way, a lot of work,” he said. “Nevertheless, many problems have accumulated in Russian-American relations which require discussion at the highest level, and I hope that our meeting will be productive.”
Biden returned the thanks and said, “It’s always better to meet face to face.”
If Biden was relaxed, it would appear to be the White House press operation. The Kremlin quickly released a transcript of the two leaders’ opening remarks, but there was no immediate way to verify this with White House officials.
Among the leaders, the scene in a library at the start of the discussion hours was quite sober and cordial – offering little body language to interpret and few words.
But as the leaders settled in, a melee almost broke out between journalists and photographers. The journalists pushed and shoved, screaming at each other to move but no one did. After just a minute or two, Russian security pulled the red cord separating the media from the rulers in an attempt to keep them away from the presidents.
Russian security shouted at reporters to get out and started pushing them – a common tactic in Russia where the media is regularly abused. Journalists and White House officials have been shouting that Russian security should keep control of the press – touching is usually verboten in the United States. In the confusion, some journalists almost fell to the ground.
The road to the US-Russian summit was equally ugly.
It was hard to imagine that relations between Washington and Moscow could be worse than in December 2012, when Vladimir Putin signed a law prohibiting Americans from adopting Russian orphans.
Suddenly, innocent children have been taken hostage – literally, in group homes – in retaliation for US President Barack Obama’s signing of the Magnitsky Law, a law cracking down on human rights abuses in Russia.
But over the next few years, relations did indeed deteriorate – much worse.
In 2014, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, after falsely accusing the United States of instigating revolution in Ukraine. In 2016, Russia put its cyber fingers in the US presidential election, wreaking havoc and hoping to tip the result against Hillary Clinton, much despised in the Kremlin since she was Obama’s secretary of state.
The election of Donald Trump and his efforts to forge ties with Putin, siding with the Russian president against the American intelligence services, for example, at their summit in Helsinki in July 2018, only worsened. more relationships. And this was followed by the attempted assassination in the UK of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer, and a similar attempt to poison Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny.
Navalny only recovered to be arrested on his return to Russia and sentenced to more than two years in prison for allegedly violating parole while in Germany for medical treatment that Putin himself had authorized.
In April of this year, the respective ambassadors of the countries returned home for consultations. Critical treaties, including the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the Open Skies Treaty, have collapsed. Only the 2010 New START agreement was spared, extended in February by five years just two days before it expired.
Governments have set low expectations for today’s talks – a perspective shared by experts, who say the summit will likely only give plans for further talks, and possibly a return of ambassadors to their posts .
“The fact of the meeting signals some stabilization and even predictability, which were Biden’s stated goals,” said Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute, a Washington think tank. “They’ve scheduled a meeting in April, and now it’s going as planned. It seems like a low bar, but think about everything that happened that could have happened in those two months to derail that. “
As for the result, Rojansky said: “I think the main thing to remember will be strategic stability, a process and not an agreement. But through this process, the hope is that we can resolve not only what comes after New START, but also cyber questions and other difficult issues. “
Samuel Charap, senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation, said the Biden administration was indeed looking beyond the new START, but also to find ways to prevent Russia from being an annoying distraction.
“They want stability,” said Charap. “They want Russia’s problems not to dominate the agenda. They’ve got bigger fish to whip up – having a Russian problem getting out of hand isn’t how they want to spend their time. “
“This relationship has been in free fall since 2014,” added Charap. “Is it plausible to hit the ground and make sure we don’t go further down the drain?” They’re looking to see if they can get it.
Biden and Putin will spend hours talking to each other. But American and Russian journalists are not supposed to do it. Under rules negotiated by Moscow and Washington before the summit, media accredited by the White House and the Kremlin are located at a distance from each other, at the site of the summit’s verdant site, Parc La Grange.
And there were notable signs of the cultural divide between the Russians and the Americans, who were each responsible for the preparations on their own. As leaders gathered in scorching sun – and temperatures of 31 degrees – White House-accredited reporters worked in an air-conditioned space.
Those accredited by the Kremlin were stifling. The Americans had real bathrooms with cloth towels; the Russians had portable toilets, with little toilet paper.
At least for breakfast the coffee, croissants and mini sandwiches looked the same, provided by the Swiss hosts.
Anita Kumar contributed reporting.