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Biden and Putin agree to reduce nuclear risks

With U.S.-Russia tensions nearing Cold War-era dimensions, Presidents Biden and Putin used Swiss diplomacy to agree to nuclear talks and other measures.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Russia's President Vladimir Putin meet at the start of the U.S.-Russia summit in Geneva
U.S. President Joe Biden, left, and Russia's President Vladimir Putin, right, meet at the start of the U.S.-Russia summit at Villa La Grange in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, June 16, 2021. (AN/Denis Balibouse/Pool Photo via AP)

GENEVA (AN) — With tensions approaching Cold War-era dimensions, U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to restore ambassadors to each other's nations and to start negotiating a potential replacement for their last nuclear arms treaty at a Swiss-hosted summit on Wednesday.

The two leaders turned to Geneva's multilateral hub of finance and global diplomacy to sort out their adversarial relationship, meeting for less than three hours, shorter than expected, for a stern exchange of views and boundary-setting.

The wide-ranging agenda for the talks included nuclear arms controls, China's ambitions, aggression against Ukraine, Belarus protests, Russia-based cyber attacks, climate change and human rights issues such as imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

“We need to have some basic rules of the road,” Biden told reporters at a solo press conference after the summit. "It was important to meet in person so there could be no mistake about or misrepresentations about what I wanted to communicate. I did what I came to do."

Biden, a seasoned foreign policy expert, said he came to the summit with almost no expectations and had little confidence that Putin might change his ways. "This is not about trust. This is about self-interest and verification of self-interest," Biden said. "I'm not confident he's going to change his behavior."

Despite the evident strains between the two leaders, they released a joint statement saying their nations would commit to working together with the intention of lessening the threat of nuclear war and of achieving a more stable and predictable relationship between their two nations.

“The United States and Russia have demonstrated that, even in periods of tension, they are able to make progress on our shared goals of ensuring predictability in the strategic sphere, reducing the risk of armed conflicts and the threat of nuclear war,” their statement said.

"The recent extension of the New START Treaty exemplifies our commitment to nuclear arms control," it said, referring to the five-year extension of the last major U.S.-Russia nuclear treaty in early February.

"Today, we reaffirm the principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought," it said. "Consistent with these goals, the United States and Russia will embark together on an integrated bilateral Strategic Stability Dialogue in the near future that will be deliberate and robust. Through this Dialogue, we seek to lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures."

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the summit was that it did not take another incident like the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis to bring it about. Instead, Biden said that after four years of Trumpism, it was time to return to "stability and predictability" in the U.S.-Russia relationship, if Putin would agree to sit down and try to find ways they might cooperate. Biden first suggested the summit in April.

Biden pressed Putin over U.S. intelligence evidence of Russian cyber attacks, interference in U.S. elections, and the poisoning and imprisonment of Navalny. Putin denied his government's involvement in the cyber attacks, election interference or Navalny's poisoning.

China's growing ambitions, too, were an impetus for only the third such Swiss-hosted summit among U.S. and Russia leaders. The 1955 Eisenhower-Khrushchev summit and 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev summit were the two previous meetings.

At a solo press conference afterward, Putin said he and Biden agreed to return their ambassadors to their postings in Moscow and Washington and to begin negotiations on a successor to the New START Treaty once it expires in 2026.

U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan has been off the job for two months, while Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Antonov was pulled from Washington several months ago in an uproar over Biden's comment that Putin was a "killer."

Putin said he did not think there was "any kind of hostility" at the summit and their discussions were "constructive." He said they agreed to hold talks on cybersecurity and called Biden  a "very experienced politician" with whom he could work to get things done.

“Our meeting was obviously a fundamental one. Many of our joint positions are divergent," Putin said. "But nevertheless, I think that both sides manifested a determination to try and understand each other and try and converge our positions.”

Swiss diplomacy

The prominent summit marked a return of sorts for Geneva's longstanding role as a global hub of diplomacy, after four years of neglect largely owing to former U.S. President Donald Trump's hostility to the United Nations, World Trade Organization and other international organizations clustered in the French-speaking Swiss city along Lake Geneva with a view towards the Mont Blanc massif.

Capping Biden's first diplomatic trip as president, the summit was held in the 18th century Villa La Grange, which is usually reserved for private or official functions. Located within Geneva's Parc de la Grange, it is a public venue offering broad, sunny lawns, playgrounds for children, shady cedar trees and the city's largest rose garden.

The park, which was donated to the city in 1917, notably hosted the closing gala for the first Geneva Convention signed in 1864. That marked the start of a series of International Committee of the Red Cross-hosted conferences that developed international humanitarian law.

Biden arrived in Geneva aboard Air Force One on Tuesday and met with the Swiss delegation, including Swiss President Guy Parmelin and Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis — who also met with Putin — at the Intercontinental Hotel where the U.S. president stayed.

Biden was accompanied by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on a weeklong diplomatic tour of Europe.

The luxury hotel and the Palais des Nations, a sprawling complex that serves as the United Nations' European headquarters, have long hosted world leaders and top diplomatic forums such as the Iranian nuclear talks and Syria peace forums.

Thousands of Swiss military and police were called in to ensure security around the park and city, and Swiss authorities banned any protests or demonstrations in the vicinity of the summit.

After their motorcades crossed the lake in the early afternoon, with four heavily armed Swiss Army helicopters monitoring for any trouble as they circled overhead, Biden and Putin shook hands and appeared briefly together for the cameras along with their host, Parmelin, before settling down for discussions.

Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also took part. The Swiss Foreign Ministry arranged livestream coverage for journalists broadcast from just outside the heavily guarded villa.

At a press conference in Brussels on Monday, Biden said he did seek confrontation with Putin. "What I’ll convey to President Putin: that I’m not looking for conflict with Russia, but that we will respond if Russia continues its harmful activities and that we will not fail to defend the Transatlantic Alliance or stand up for democratic values," Biden said.

"I’m going to make clear to President Putin that there are areas where we can cooperate, if he chooses," he said. "And if he chooses not to cooperate and acts in a way that he has in the past, relative to cybersecurity and some other activities, then we will respond.  We will respond in kind."

Just ahead of the summit, Putin gave an exclusive interview to NBC News in which he praised Trump but also said he felt he could work with Biden.

"Well even now, I believe that former U.S. president Mr. Trump is an extraordinary individual, talented individual, otherwise he would not have become U.S. president," Putin told NBC's Keir Simmons on Friday.

"He is a colorful individual. You may like him or not," he said. "And, but he didn't come from the U.S. establishment. He had not been part of big-time politics before, and some like it, some don’t like it, but that is a fact."

Putin said Biden "is radically different from Trump because President Biden is a career man" who has spent virtually his entire adult life as a politician.

"That's a different kind of person," Putin said, "and it is my great hope that, yes, there are some advantages, some disadvantages, but there will not be any impulse-based movements on behalf of the sitting U.S. president."