Published: 11:52, June 21, 2021 | Updated: 11:52, June 21, 2021
Cautious Biden-Putin summit avoids ‘hostility’
By Zhao Huanxin in Washington and Ren Qi in Moscow

President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, arrive to meet at the 'Villa la Grange', June 16, 2021, in Geneva, Switzerland. (PATRICK SEMANSKY / AP)

United States President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin called their summit in Geneva on June 16 “positive” or at least bearing “no hostility”, with Washington framing it as a foreign policy win, but experts said it might be “months” away to know if the meeting was a success.

The three-hour sit-down at an elegant villa on the shores of Lake Geneva wrapped up a few hours earlier than what White House officials had previously indicated. It was followed by a solo press conference instead of a joint one but was capped by a joint presidential statement on strategic stability.

Biden called his first face-to-face with Putin “good, positive”, a session that Putin also said exhibited “no hostility”, but was “very efficient”, aimed at achieving results including pushing back the frontiers of trust.

But ringing through the summit were at least muffled warnings, in addition to rebuttals and denials.

In his opening remarks, for example, Biden said that he expected Washington and Moscow could “establish a predictable and rational way in which we disagree — two great powers”.

“The West believes that the Russian policy is unpredictable. Well, let me reciprocate. The US withdrawal from the ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) Treaty in 2002 wasn’t predictable,” Putin said at a press conference after the summit.

He cited US attacks in Afghanistan and the existence of the Guantanamo Bay prison as examples to counter US criticism on Russian human rights, an issue that along with cyberattacks, top Washington’s long list of allegations against the Kremlin.

“One single strike can kill … (about) 120 people. All right, assuming this was a mistake that happens in a war, but shooting from a drone, (at) an unarmed crowd, clearly the civilian crowd, what is this about? How would you call that? And who’s responsible for this?” Putin said.

He said he told Putin certain US critical infrastructure “should be off limits” to cyberattacks, which Moscow has denied.

Biden said: “I pointed out to him, we have significant cyber capability.” And, “in fact, (if) they violate basic norms, we will respond”.

In a joint statement released after their meeting, the two heads of state noted both sides have “demonstrated that, even in periods of tension, they are able to make progress on our shared goals of ensuring predictability in the strategic sphere, reducing the risk of armed conflicts and the threat of nuclear war”.

Stanley Renshon, a political scientist at City University of New York, also said that the fact that the bilateral meetings were much shorter than earlier indicated, and that there were separate news conferences, suggest that the exchanges did not lead to any substantive or in-depth discussions.

The two sides agreeing for their ambassadors to resume their posts can be seen as a gesture of diplomatic healing.

Russia’s Ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov was recalled from Washington in March after Biden called Putin a “killer”, and US envoy to Russia John Sullivan left Moscow in April.

“I think the most important takeaways from the summit concern atmospherics and process rather than substance,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist and historian at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

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