Geneva (CNN) President Joe Biden’s meeting Wednesday with his Russian counterpart came after months of diplomatic strife over the details, days of preparation with research areas and the elaborate construction of two separate sea sites for leaders to emerge afterwards.
But after the summit was over, the ornate French-style mansion was locked and the leaders fled in opposite directions home, the state of relations between the United States and Russia seemed about the same as before.
It is not necessarily a surprise, least of all for Biden, who entered the summit with the vague and modest goal of establishing a “predictable and rational” relationship with Vladimir Putin.
Putin’s performance afterwards was certainly predictable, if not entirely rational.
In the end, Biden set expectations so low for his first face-to-face meeting with Putin that anything more than someone who did not show up at all seemed to break even.
Even the shorter-than-expected driving time does not prove major disputes, according to White House officials. Instead, Biden said it was a reflection, the two sides had simply run out of things to say, “We looked at each other like, ‘OK, what’s next?’ he said.
There were modest achievements such as a decision to return each country’s ambassador to their posts and the creation of a task force on cyber attacks, perhaps the biggest new point of contention between Washington and Moscow.
But in both Biden’s and Putin’s narrative, the summit was not intended for major breakthroughs. Instead, each said it was about making status, being honest, and moving forward.
Man to man
Biden’s decision to convene Wednesday’s summit boiled down to his essential views on foreign affairs: it’s just about the person.
“I know we’re making foreign policy to be this big, big skill that is somehow like a secret code,” Biden said at his closing press conference. “All foreign policy is a logical extension of personal relationships. It is the way human nature works.”
Judging by these parameters, the summit seemed to have met its objectives.
“The tone throughout the meeting was good, positive,” Biden said, adding: “The bottom line is, I told President Putin that we need to have some basic rules of the road that we can all abide by.”
Putin gave a somewhat similar description.
“He is a balanced and professional man and it is clear that he is very experienced,” Putin said. “It looks like we spoke the same language.”
Yet he offered no sign of changing malicious behavior that has tested Vest’s ability and willingness to react. And he did not change his rhetoric, denying Alexey Navalny and denying Russia’s roles in cyber attacks.
Instead, he described an honest and pragmatic three hours that had not led to a deep or emotional connection.
“It certainly does not mean that we looked into each other’s eyes and found a soul or swore eternal friendship,” he said.
Nothing like Trump
An overarching goal for Biden’s team in planning its summit with Putin was to avoid the spectacle that unfolded in Helsinki in 2018, when then-President Donald Trump met Putin alone for two hours and showed up to say he took the Russians’ words about the US intelligence service at elections interfere.
They decided against a joint press conference to avoid a similar scenario.
Wednesday’s summit was undoubtedly different. Even Putin noticed it.
“His predecessor had a different view,” he said. “This one decided to act differently. His response was different from Trump’s.”
Meanwhile, Biden was open about the areas in which he confronted Putin – including electoral interference and human rights, which Trump often downplayed or completely ignored in his meetings with the Russian leader.
Yet there was a similarity for all the differences. As he left his press conference and again at Geneva airport, Biden took questions about how journalists framed his trip.
“To be a good reporter, you have to be negative,” he said. “You never ask a positive question.”
Biden apologized for killing CNN’s Kaitlan Collins during his press conference for asking what made him sure Putin could change.
But his admonition on negative issues could easily come from his predecessor.
Skeptics from Biden’s meeting with Putin questioned whether meeting with the Russian leader so early in Biden’s period might raise the stature of the former KGB spy on the world stage.
The city’s helpers were aware of this risk; one of the reasons they decided not to hold a joint press conference was that it could potentially upgrade Putin if he was seen with the US president.
But when Biden sat down with Putin inside Villa la Grange, he undertook to describe Russia and the United States as “two great powers”, a remarkable choice of words after former US officials have tried to downplay Russia’s influence.
Even Biden’s old boss, former President Barack Obama, described Russia as merely a “regional power” after the country invaded Crimea.
Putin has long sought respect from the West, even as he tests its limits. Some critics of Biden’s meeting said its absence of firm results meant it was little more than a photo-op that would prove a blessing in disguise for Putin.
Biden, whose full remarks were impossible to hear over a sound of journalists pushing to enter the room, seemed to help point out that leaders in large, important countries need to find ways to deal with each other, even in the midst of their differences.
Same tune from Putin
When Putin emerged after the hour-long summit, he acknowledged that the meeting with Biden was “constructive”.
“I think both sides manifested a willingness to try to understand each other and try to converge our attitudes,” he said.
But he continued to perform the same type of ambiguous, denial-filled performance that he always does when pressed on issues of cybercrime, human rights and Ukraine.
This was not a surprise to US officials who did not take part in the negotiations, believing that Biden would magically be able to change Putin’s rhetoric, much less his behavior. Nor was it of the nature of Putin, who has often worked to cultivate relations with American leaders, even though he openly draws their concerns publicly off.
One difference in Wednesday’s appearance was its reach: Because he had just concluded a highly anticipated summit with the US president, his remarks were broadcast all over the world, including on US television networks.
His final press conference came in front of Biden in a piece of highly planned top choreography. This allowed Biden to reject many of his points.
Yet his spin got its highest profile in several years, underscoring only the difficulties that Biden faced in the negotiations, and raised serious issues with a counterpart who denies that the problems themselves exist.
When Biden entered into talks with Putin, he made it clear that cyber attacks – and in particular the recent scale of ransomware hacks carried out by criminal syndicates operating in Russia – would make up a large part of his talks.
Biden believes that countries like Russia have a responsibility to reduce cybercrime originating in their countries. At previous G7 and NATO meetings this week, he persuaded other Western leaders to include language in their final statements backing him.
One of the most important – and only – results of Wednesday’s talks was the agreement that experts should “work on specific understanding of what boundaries are and follow up on specific issues.”
Biden seemed to recognize the limits of the decision: “The principle is one thing, it must be backed by practice,” Biden said.
And he revealed a narrative aspect of his attempt to convince Putin of the seriousness of the crimes: “Well, how would you feel if ransomware removed the pipelines from your oil fields?” he said he told Putin.
Biden did not say how Putin reacted. But he said he told Putin that the United States has “significant cyber capability” and will respond to further cyber attacks.
“He knows. He does not know exactly what it is, but he knows it is important,” Biden said. “If they actually violate his basic norms, we will respond.”
The bid’s confrontation did not change Putin’s tune when the summit ended. Referring to the breach of the Colonial Pipeline, which the United States has accused of Russian-based hackers, Putin asked, “What do the Russian authorities have to do with this?”
The answer was not a particular surprise to U.S. officials who did not enter the summit in the belief that Putin would suddenly change his mind. Instead, they wanted Biden to convey clear consequences for cybercrime, a rapidly evolving threat that Biden will at least be able to communicate with Putin about.