© Reuters. Flags of the USA, Russia and Switzerland are pictured in the garden in front of Villa La Grange, one day before the meeting of US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, Switzerland, June 15, 2021. Peter Klaunzer / Pool via R.
By Steve Holland and Vladimir Soldatkin
GENEVA (Reuters) – US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet on Wednesday for their first meeting since Biden took office with deep disagreements and low expectations for breakthroughs.
Both have stated that they hope their conversations at a lakeside villa in Geneva can lead to more stable and predictable relationships, despite disagreeing on everything from arms control and cyber hacking to election interference and Ukraine.
“We don’t expect big results from this meeting,” a senior US official told reporters aboard Air Force One as Biden flew to Geneva (1130 GMT).
Putin arrived in Geneva on Wednesday, as Reuters TV footage showed.
“I’m not sure whether an agreement will be reached,” said Putin’s foreign policy advisor Yuri Ushakov.
Relations have deteriorated for years, notably with Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, the intervention in Syria in 2015 and the US denial of Donald Trump’s meddling in the 2016 election brought to the White House.
They continued to decline in March when Biden said he considered Putin a “killer”, prompting Russia to call its ambassador back to Washington for consultations. In April the US called its ambassador.
The senior US official said the United States was looking “in areas where working together can advance our national interests and make the world a safer place”.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the two presidents would decide whether to send ambassadors back. “Today the presidents have to decide what to do with the heads of the diplomatic missions,” Peskov was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying.
While the troubles may be annoying, the environment will be serene when the presidents meet at Villa La Grange, an elegant mansion set in a 30-acre park overlooking Lake Geneva.
On Wednesday, the summit area was tightly sealed off with a heavy police presence. After a bilateral meeting, Biden and Putin will continue their talks with other US and Russian delegations, including US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, as well as interpreters.
Arms control is an area in which, despite broader disagreements, progress has historically been possible.
In February, Russia and the United States extended the New START treaty by five years, which limits their deployed strategic nuclear warheads and restricts the land- and submarine-based missiles and bombers they can deliver.
The senior US official said Biden will also define areas of vital national interest where Russian wrongdoing would bring a response. Biden signed an executive order in April that gives Washington ample leeway to impose sanctions on Moscow.
As a sign of strained relationships, the talks will not include meals and Putin and Biden are expected to hold separate press conferences rather than one joint press conference.
“Don’t break bread,” said the senior US official.
Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat, told Reuters that Putin wanted respectful relations and treated like members of the Soviet Politburo in the 1960s to 1980s, with “a symbolic recognition of Russia’s geopolitical parity with the US.”
“In return, they (Moscow) would be willing to cut down on some of the crazy stuff,” Frolov said, saying he meant “no poisoning, no physical violence, no arrests / kidnappings of US and Russian nationals politics.”
Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, lowered the bar for the talks on Wednesday.
“The most important lesson from the Geneva meeting, in a positive sense, would be to ensure that the United States and Russia do not physically collide in order to avert a military collision,” he said.
In contrast to Trump, whose summit meeting with Putin in Helsinki in 2018 was only accompanied by interpreters, Biden and Putin are not expected to do solo deals.
In addition to Putin in Helsinki, Trump refused to accuse the Russian head of state of meddling in the US elections in 2016, doubted the findings of his own secret services and triggered a storm of domestic political criticism.