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GENEVA – US President Joe Biden looked relaxed, smiling, legs crossed, hands in lap. Vladimir Putin looked just a little more serious, feet up, legs spread but not too far, leaning back in his chair.
Foreign Minister Antony Blinken was taking notes – it was not entirely clear what – when Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sat across from him, bored, as is his way of doing things.
Putin thanked Biden for his initiative at their meeting. “I know you’ve come a long way, a lot of work,” he said. “Even so, many issues have accumulated in Russian-American relations that require high-level discussion, and I hope our meeting will be productive.”
Biden returned the thanks and said, “It is always better to meet face to face.”
If Biden was relaxed, it appears to have been the White House press operation. The Kremlin quickly released a transcript of the two leaders’ opening addresses, but there was no immediate way to check with White House officials.
Among the guides, the library scene at the beginning of the hours of conversation was sober and cordial enough – it offered little body language for interpreting and few words.
But as the leaders settled down, close combat almost broke out between reporters and photographers. Journalists shoved and shoved, yelling at each other to move, but no one did. After just a minute or two, Russian security pulled back the red rope separating the media from the leaders to keep them away from the presidents.
Russian security forces yelled at journalists to get out and started pushing them – a common tactic in Russia, where the media is routinely rude. Journalists and White House officials shouted back that Russian security should keep its hands off the press – touching is generally prohibited in the US Confused, some reporters almost fell to the ground.
The road to the US-Russia summit was similarly ugly.
It is hard to imagine that Washington-Moscow relations could potentially deteriorate when, in December 2012, when Vladimir Putin signed a law banning Americans from adopting Russian orphans.
Suddenly, innocent children were held hostage – literally in shared apartments – in retaliation for US President Barack Obama signing the Magnitsky Act, a law that combats human rights violations in Russia.
But over the next few years, relationships actually got worse – much worse.
In 2014, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea after falsely accusing the US of fueling the revolution in Ukraine. In 2016, Russia stuck its cyber fingers into the US presidential election, wreaking havoc and hoping to overturn the outcome against Hillary Clinton, who was much despised in the Kremlin from her time as Obama’s foreign minister.
The election of Donald Trump and his efforts to establish a connection with Putin, for example on the side of the Russian president via the US secret services, at their summit in Helsinki in July 2018, only added strain to the relationship. And this was followed by the attempted assassination in Great Britain on Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer, and a similar attempt to poison the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Navalny recovered only to be arrested on his return to Russia and sentenced to more than two years in prison for violating probation in Germany for allegedly violating probation for medical treatment that Putin himself approved.
In April of this year, the respective ambassadors of the countries returned home for consultations. Major treaties, including the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Missile Treaty (INF) and the Open Skies Treaty, have failed. Only the New START agreement of 2010 was spared, which was extended by five years in February just two days before it expired.
Governments have low expectations of today’s talks – an assessment shared by experts who say the summit will likely only bring plans for further talks and perhaps a return of ambassadors to their posts.
“The fact of the meeting signals some stabilization and even predictability that Biden’s stated goals were,” said Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute, a Washington think tank. “You had a meeting scheduled for April and now it’s going as planned. It seems like a low bar, but think of everything that happened and what could have happened in those two months to derail this. “
Commenting on the outcome, Rojansky said: “I think the central point will be strategic stability, a process, not an agreement. But through this process we hope that we can not only address what’s coming after New START, but also cyber and other difficult problems. “
Samuel Charap, senior political scientist at Rand Corporation, said the Biden administration is actually looking beyond New START but is also looking for ways to keep Russia from being a pesky distraction.
“You want stability,” said Charap. “You want Russia problems not to dominate the agenda. They have bigger fish to fry – a Russian problem that is getting out of hand is not what they want their time to be. “
“That relationship has been in a tailspin since 2014,” added Charap. “Is it plausible to fall to the ground and make sure we don’t go further down the drain? They’re trying to see if they can get that. “
Biden and Putin will talk to each other for hours. But American and Russian journalists are not supposed to. According to rules that Moscow and Washington negotiated in the run-up to the summit, the media accredited by the White House and Kremlin are located far apart on the grounds of the green summit area Parc La Grange.
And there were clear indications of the cultural divide between the Russians and the Americans, who were responsible for the preparations on their own side. When the heads of state and government met in blazing sun – and temperatures of 31 degrees – reporters accredited by the White House worked in an air-conditioned room.
Those accredited by the Kremlin were brooding. The Americans had proper bathrooms with cloth towels; the Russians had portable toilets, and hygiene papers were in short supply.
At least for breakfast, coffee, croissants and mini sandwiches seemed to be identical, delivered by the Swiss hosts.
Anita Kumar contributed to the coverage.