President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet face-to-face in Geneva on June 16, their first summit as Biden looks for what he calls a more "stable, predictable relationship" despite the many points of conflict between the two nations.
Biden will sit down with Putin on the back end of his first foreign trip as president, following a G-7 meeting in the United Kingdom and a NATO summit in Belgium.
A source familiar with the meeting, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told reporters that the summit isn't expected to lead to any major new policy agreements. Still, the two presidents will go into the session with a lengthy agenda: nuclear arms control, climate change and Russia's aggressive attempts to interfere in foreign elections, among other topics.
It will be the first stand-alone U.S.-Russia summit since then-President Donald Trump's infamous meeting with Putin in Helsinki in 2018. At the time, Trump drew broad condemnation from leaders in both parties for publicly siding with Putin as the Russian president denied U.S. intelligence findings that Russia had meddled in the 2016 presidential election. Trump last met with Putin in June 2019 on the sidelines of the G-20 in Osaka, Japan.
"This is a very important meeting," said Angela Stent, director of Georgetown University's Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies. "We know that by the end of the Trump administration, the U.S.-Russian relationship was even worse than it was before he came into office despite all his attempts to improve it. And we were really in a situation where we more or less hit rock bottom."
Biden and his foreign policy advisers regularly speak about taking a more "clear-eyed" view of Putin's attempts to destabilize democracies, exert pressure on Ukraine and other regional neighbors, and crack down on dissidents within Russian borders. But Biden has called for a more "stable, predictable" relationship between the two countries.
It's a goal Michael McFaul, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration, views with skepticism. "I admire that aspiration, but I think it's quite unrealistic because I don't think Putin himself is interested in a stable, predictable relationship. So I think they have to confront the possibility it may be a different relationship than that."
McFaul staffed Biden's last face-to-face meeting with Putin, in 2011, when Biden was vice president and Putin was skirting Russian term limits by serving as prime minister while Dmitry Medvedev was Russia's president. A decade later, McFaul recalls how productive the U.S.-Russia relationship was at that moment in time. "That's when we were really cooperating on very difficult issues, and a lot has changed since then."
The relationship deteriorated after Syrian President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons in the country's civil war. Russia is Assad's most powerful ally. Things soured further after Russia occupied and annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and meddled in the 2016 presidential election, among other provocations.
While McFaul supports Biden meeting with Putin next month, he's doubtful the outcome will drastically change the current dynamic between the two countries.
Still, Biden has long valued face-to-face interactions with other leaders and framed most foreign policy decisions as an extension of personal relationships. Despite being fully vaccinated before taking office, Biden stuck to strict COVID-19 protocols in the early months of his presidency, in part to model safe behavior to Americans. As a result, he had to resort to virtual meetings with other world leaders, which were sometimes marred by technical glitches and awkward video setups.
Biden has since hosted in-person White House meetings with the heads of government from Japan and South Korea. The June European trip, culminating in the Geneva summit, will mark Biden's most extensive opportunity yet for the type of in-person diplomacy he had long practiced as vice president and as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Stent said that face-to-face contact is especially important for the U.S.-Russia relationship, which has traditionally centered around the personal attitudes and goals of the two countries' heads of state, and how they interacted with each other.
The bilateral dynamic, Stent argued, is largely defined by nuclear weapons and conflict points. The tensions have been much easier to manage when presidents have developed working relationships, such as former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev eventually did.
"So it's important to establish, at least at a minimum, some of these regularized channels again," Stent said. "You really need the top leadership to get that going. And that's more so true of Russia than here, because I think American officials always find it's very hard to get anything done with Russia unless there's real buy-ins and signals from the president himself."
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Next month, President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet face to face in Geneva. The White House made the official announcement today after hinting at a summit between the two leaders for several weeks. This comes as new tensions have emerged with Russia. NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow is here to talk about what this means.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey. Good afternoon.
SHAPIRO: What more can you tell us about the summit?
DETROW: Well, like you said, it's in Geneva. It's June 16. Geneva is, of course, a symbolic spot with a long history of international talks. It is where Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev held their first face-to-face summit and began what became a productive relationship despite enormous differences. You know, no one at the White House expects the kind of talks that those two had, and the White House is already downplaying expectations a little bit. But they're saying this is a first step at reestablishing a working relationship and beginning to sort through a lot of different issues. And the White House is also making it clear this is not a sign the U.S. is ready to have a sunnier relationship with Vladimir Putin. In fact, at the briefing today, Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked several times, is this some sort of reward for Putin? And Psaki argued presidents need to meet with people they disagree with, not just close allies.
SHAPIRO: So what's on the list of things that they plan to talk about?
DETROW: A lot of things. A source familiar with planning said it is a wide range of areas, everything from climate change to nuclear arms control to Russian support for Belarus, which, of course, comes off the news this week of Belarus essentially forcing down an airliner in order to arrest a dissident. It's only one day of talks, but it seems like it's going to be a very packed schedule.
SHAPIRO: You know, the Biden administration is really talking up the fact that this is going to be a face-to-face meeting. How important is that, given that he's had a lot of Zoom meetings with world leaders?
DETROW: Yeah, it's pretty important for Biden. He is someone who throughout his career has argued over and over again that most things come down to one-on-one relationships. It is almost a running joke with the reporters who cover him how every time the president talks about China, he will mention the fact that he has spent hours and hours meeting in person with President Xi. And this lack of ability to do this in a COVID era has been a frustration for this administration. You know, there's also a view that establishing this in-person chemistry is disproportionately important for U.S.-Russia relationships. Angela Stent is a Russia expert at Georgetown University and was talking about this. She says, look. There's no huge economic relationship between the U.S. and Russia. It's a relationship that really boils down to the fact these are two countries with a lot of nuclear weapons and tension. So personal dynamics are really important in managing that.
ANGELA STENT: It's important to establish, at least at a minimum, some of these regularized channels again. And you really need the top leadership to get that going.
DETROW: And she says this is especially true on the Russian side, that American diplomats really see the difference in a response when Putin makes it clear he cares about a policy or a topic versus when he doesn't.
SHAPIRO: Anything else Biden's trying to get out of the summit other than just establishing that working relationship with Putin?
DETROW: Yeah, and like I mentioned, the White House is making it clear they don't expect huge announcements or deals. One thing they often talk about is creating a more stable and predictable relationship. I asked the former Obama administration ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, about this. And notably, he was pretty skeptical that that is even possible.
MICHAEL MCFAUL: I admire that aspiration, but I think it's quite unrealistic because I don't think Putin himself is interested in a stable and predictable relationship. So I think they have to confront the possibility that it may be a different kind of relationship than that.
DETROW: The administration is still going to try, though. And one thing they point to is the fact that Biden made a point to call Putin ahead of those sanctions that he announced last month to say, look. We are sanctioning you. But in the same call, Biden invited Putin to the summit, and the White House sees just basic communication. You know, sanctions are still coming. There is still tension, but we are having a conversation about it as an improvement over where things were before.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow.
DETROW: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.