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What Biden And Putin's Meeting Could Mean For U.S.-Russia Relations


I'm Mary Louise Kelly in Geneva, where, after weeks of planning and weeks of speculation, the summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden is over. The day began with a tense photo op outside the 18th-century Swiss villa where the two men met, flanked by Swiss, Russian and U.S. flags. And with the Swiss president standing in between them, Biden and Putin looked on at the throngs of press. They waved. They headed inside. And then talks went on for about four hours.

The day ended with each leader giving a solo press conference. Putin said he saw a, quote, "glimpse of hope for mutual trust" between Russia and the U.S. Biden described the meeting as good and positive. They were repeatedly emphasizing opportunities for strategic collaboration.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: There are areas where there's a mutual interest for us to cooperate, for our people, Russian and American people, but also for the benefit of the world and the security of the world.

KELLY: We're going to talk now through how the day unfolded, what it could mean for U.S.-Russia relations going forward with NPR White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe.

Hey there.


KELLY: And NPR's Moscow correspondent, Lucian Kim.

Hello again, Lucian.


KELLY: All right. I'm going to let you start there in Moscow because you have covered Putin for years now. What stood out to you today?

KIM: Well, simply that he was on time. You know, he's famously late for these important meetings, and this time he was not. He really came looking to do business. And he was accompanied with his leading aides, including the chief of Russia's general staff. You know, on one hand, this was partly a show for the cameras, but it looks like Putin was not just posturing. He went to Geneva to stop this downward spiral in U.S.-Russian relations.

KELLY: Ayesha, what about the White House, which, of course, had really downplayed expectations for this summit? How did Biden in his press conference - describe how he thought he went.

RASCOE: The White House really wanted to have a dialogue - that was the focus - and to be able to start talking about some serious issues between the countries. They had tried to lower expectations of any possible deals or agreements coming out of this. The big thing that did come out of this, though, is that ambassadors from both countries are going back to their posts. They are also going to be opening some organized dialogue, including around cybersecurity and moving ahead with nuclear arms talks - nuclear arms control talks.

At his press conference, Biden came out - he was talking pretty tough. He listed the areas where he said he confronted Putin like human rights and basically argued that Russia would be marginalized if Putin continued to take actions outside of international norms. But Biden also said that the tone of talks was good and positive. And he emphasized that these two countries could maybe find a path toward repairing the relationship. I should say Biden did get pretty angry with reporters after the press conference, when they pushed back that Putin hadn't really seemed to change his tune on a lot of things like cybersecurity and human rights.

KELLY: Yes, Ayesha, I will note that he walked that back a little bit and apologized right before he got on Air Force One and took off back - headed back to Washington. Lucian, you and I were speaking earlier today, and we both noted Putin looked in great spirits at this press conference. What did he want out of this summit, and did he get it?

KIM: That's absolutely right. I mean, it's important to understand that Putin defines himself in a large part through his relationship with the United States. And by challenging the United States constantly, he really builds himself up as a leader on the world stage, and at the same time, standing together with an American president, he also legitimizes himself as a leader in the eyes of the Russian people. So he went for that recognition, and he got it.

But, you know, as I mentioned, he appears to be genuinely interested in issues like arms control. And here he is back, you know, engaging with the U.S. on a number of important issues - Afghanistan, Iran, even cybersecurity. So as far as Putin is concerned, he can count this summit as a success.

KELLY: Let's stay with cybersecurity for a second, because this was such a huge issue hanging over the summit. The two leaders say they have agreed to have a dialogue over cybersecurity. Ayesha, do we know what that means?

RASCOE: Biden said there would be expert consultations. And he said that he shared a list of 16 different types of critical infrastructure that should be totally off-limits to attacks like water and electricity. Biden said he didn't actually threaten Putin, but he made it clear that the U.S. has significant cyber capability. Putin, of course, has accused the U.S. of launching cyberattacks as well and denied that Russia does that. On all of these issues, though, Biden was asked if he trusts Putin.


BIDEN: This is not about trust. This is about self-interest and verification of self-interest. That's what it's about. So I - virtually almost anyone that I would work out an agreement with that affected the American people's interest, I don't say, well, I trust you, no problem. Let's see what happens.

RASCOE: Biden stressed that he feels like he'd be able to judge over the coming year whether the relationship is actually improving.

KELLY: Right. And to that point, Lucian, one thing we did not hear from Vladimir Putin today was any kind of admission that Russia has actually played a hand in the cyber incidents that the U.S. says you absolutely have a hand in. You're centrally directing it from the Kremlin. What did we hear from Putin on this?

KIM: Well, right. I mean, you know, Russia is certainly also a cyber power and wants to be seen as one. But, you know, at the same time, it's also aware of U.S. capabilities and has actually been seeking, you know, some kind of agreement on this. So, you know, whether this is now a ploy to open a new field of engagement with the United States or an attempt to put some guardrails on cyberspace remains to be seen.

KELLY: Ayesha, I'm going to give you the last question and just get a little bit of the color of the summit. And here, as is tradition, the two leaders exchanged gifts. And there was a bit of a sense of humor on display here. What did they each give and get?

RASCOE: Well, Biden actually gave Putin a custom pair of aviator sunglasses. Biden is known for wearing his aviators and, you know, a little brown leather jacket...

KELLY: He was whipping them on during the press conference, yeah.

RASCOE: Whenever it's sunny out, he has on his aviators. And he also gave him a bison sculpture. So it was a little funny little gift with the aviator - custom pair of aviator sunglasses.

KELLY: And a bison sculpture. All right. We will leave our wrap of the summit today right there. We've been talking to NPR White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe and NPR Moscow correspondent Lucian Kim.

Thanks, you two.

KIM: Thank you.

RASCOE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.
Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.