Biden’s strategy of pessimism ekes out progress with Putin

Biden details meeting with Putin which covered cybersecurity, human rights

President Biden said in a news conference following a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 16 that the meeting had a positive tone. (Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

GENEVA — In a political career spanning four decades, President Biden has seen American presidents from both parties try to transform the U.S. relationship with Russia only to leave office disappointed.

He would make no overtures for a reset in relations, and his pessimism about the prospects of changing Putin’s mind on issues such as human rights would inform his actions.

“This is not about trust. This is about self-interest,” he told reporters at a news conference in Switzerland after a three-hour summit on Wednesday. “This is not a kumbaya moment.”

In setting up the meeting in the Swiss lakeside city, Biden’s aides left nothing to chance.

To avoid falling short of expectations, they played down the likelihood of even modest accomplishments. To avoid appearing weak, they negotiated that Putin would arrive at the venue first, eliminating the chances that the Russian leader would keep the U.S. president waiting by showing up late — a frequent Putin psychological tactic. To avoid any surprises, they decided against holding a joint news conference, which might prompt moments of spontaneity and improvisation.

With expectations set low and pushed even lower by the talks’ ending earlier than expected, Putin and Biden emerged from the meetings with a pleasant surprise: incremental progress on a handful of issues.

Swiss President Guy Parmelin looks on as Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Biden greet each other at the beginning of a summit in Generva on June 16, 2021.

Swiss President Guy Parmelin looks on as Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Biden greet each other at the beginning of a summit in Generva on June 16, 2021. (Peter Klaunzer/AP)

“There has been no hostility,” Putin told reporters after the meeting. “On the contrary, our meeting took place in a constructive spirit.”

Biden said the meeting was “good” and “positive.”

Biden, Putin aired differences at a high-stakes summit but agree on little

Both presidents agreed on returning their ambassadors to their posts. Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov and U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan have been away from their missions for months, imperiling diplomacy at a time of heightened geopolitical tensions.

The two sides also agreed to resume long-stalled strategic stability talks aimed at reducing the risks of unintentional conflict between the two nuclear powers, according to a joint communique issued after the meeting.

They also decided to organize meetings of experts to hold consultations on cybersecurity, in particular on which types of infrastructure should be considered “out of bounds” or “off-limits” to destructive cyberattacks, said a senior U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive discussions.

U.S. officials handed Putin a list of 16 sectors including food and agriculture, financial services, communications and the defense industrial base that they considered off-limits.

Individually, none of the agreements amounts to a watershed moment, but analysts said that together they constitute progress on issues important to both countries.

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