President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin have begun their summit at a villa on Lake Geneva with a very awkward photo opportunity with stilted chat, minimal eye contact and with aides shooing the press away.
The two men arrived at the summit within a few minutes of each other: Putin, after a last-minute arrival by air and motorcade; Biden by driving from his nearby hotel, having arrived Tuesday.
Biden extended his hand first. Putin accepted, and the two proceeded to shake hands and smile for the cameras outside the Villa de La Grange before heading inside.
President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin greet each other as they arrive for their meeting at the Villa La Grange in Geneva, Switzerland. pic.twitter.com/OFoWmXleL8— Doug Mills (@dougmillsnyt) June 16, 2021
During a photo-op in the library, Biden grinned while photographers jostled to capture the historic meeting.
'It's always better to meet face to face,' Biden said, flashing a big smile. He sat with his legs crossed, and at one point put a white notecard into his suit jacket inside pocket.
The event was set up not to have public comments by either man, and Putin could be seen sitting back in his chair, tapping his hand against his wooden armrest and looking bored while they waited.
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was seated to Biden's right, taking notes. To Biden's left was Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, seated with his hands between his legs.
Then a minder cajoled the press, telling the photographers: 'Go away please,' and they were ushered out of the room so the first substantive meeting could begin.
The highly-anticipated first presidential summit is a Cold War throwback to Ronald Reagan's meeting with the Soviet strongman Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva in 1985.
Relations between the two sides are similarly cool - at their lowest ebb in decades after the Kremlin's cyber offensives, election meddling, threats to invade Ukraine, poisonings of dissidents both at home and abroad, and its increased intervention in the Middle East, where it is accused of shadowy mercenary deployments.
Things got tense inside the room as Swiss officials running the event in the cramped room sought to herd a phalanx of reporters in and out of the library – with some pushing and shoving during the scrum.
The seated officials, all wearing dark suits, were treated to a chaotic scene while international media tried to make its way to capture the event.
Security officials jostled and shoved pools of reporters and photographers inside a room that was packed with cords and equipment.
'As I said outside, I think it's always better to meet face to face and try to determine our mutual interests and cooperation,' Biden said.
Putin, who speaks English but refrains from using it publicly, said via a translator: 'Mr. President I'd like to thank you for your initiative to meet today. I know that you've been on a long tour. Still, the U.S. and Russia relations have a lot of issues accumulated that require the highest-level meeting. And I hope that our meeting will be productive.'
A masked official told reporters sternly: 'Go away please.' U.S. press were pushed and shoved by security officials and Russian media, according to a U.S. pool report.
Putin, who is known to roll in late to seek the upper hand, arrived before Biden - avoiding any early gaming.
Washington has been seeking to lower expectations amid the fanfare and buildup, which saw Moscow rocking the boat over the weekend with naval drills staged 300 miles off the coast of Hawaii - its largest military exercise in the Pacific since the Cold War.
'We have a 20+ year track record of seeing exactly who Putin is - no summit is going to change that, and I'm sure Biden and his team know that,' tweeted former Obama deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes.
The event has been both choreographed in its broad outlines and adjusted on the fly, some areas left entirely open – including the food.
'No breaking of bread,' quipped a senior official when asked about the lack of a set meal.
But the official allowed, 'I presume that the principals and the participants can ask for some water or coffee or tea ...' The summit format also allowed for breaks to be determined.
Putin, too, is certain to want to put his spin on events, but hasn't said how he will do it when, or where.
He has kept up a busy schedule of interviews in the days leading up to the summit.
The relationship has featured intense comments, and Biden agreed with Putin's assessment that national relations were at a 'low point.'
Biden says he once told Putin he had 'no soul.' He caused an uproar when he agreed Putin was a 'killer.'
But this week he also called him 'bright' and 'tough,' as well as a 'worthy adversary.'
He wants to see if there is a way to at least establish 'stability and predictability' in U.S.-Russia relations.
President Biden is meeting with President Vladimir Putin of Russia in a summit that is fraught with new challenges.— The New York Times (@nytimes) June 16, 2021
The two leaders will discuss topics including cybersecurity and human rights concerns.
Follow live updates here.https://t.co/veRl6LWwhN pic.twitter.com/Od9MFtQAlp
'We should decide where it's in our mutual interest, in the interest of the world, to cooperate, and see if we can do that,' Biden said this week. 'And the areas where we don't agree, make it clear what the red lines are.'
Putin described Biden with the double-edged 'career man' label, saying he 'spent virtually his entire adulthood in politics.'
Putin said the remark this week by way of contrast with former President Trump, who he met at the infamous Helsinki summit – presenting Trump with a soccer ball and standing alongside Trump while he accepted Putin's denials of election interference in 2016.
Biden has limited his comments on the issues he would raise. But he and his aides have said he will bring up ransomware, hacking, election interference, Ukraine, press freedoms, opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and human rights.
The Navalny issue is a particularly thorny one. To the U.S. it is a core rule of law issue. Biden wants to send a message to dissidents and other opposition figures, but it is an area where it will be challenging to make progress.
'Navalny's death would be another indication of Russia has little or no intention of abiding by basic fundamental human rights. It would be a tragedy,' Biden said this week when asked what it would mean should he die in prison.
'We should not lose sight of the fact that Navalny is the most famous of several hundred political prisoners,' said Matthew Rojansky, director of the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute in Washington. He said Biden may want to raise the question of Russia's political prisoners more broadly.
He said the U.S. should hold Putin to international standards and its own commitments as well as Russia's own constitution. 'We should try to hold them to those standards. The problem is the regime views these behaviors as essential to its survival. They're not things we can convince them that they should reverse,' he noted.'
If Biden didn't already know it, he should be prepared for Putin trying to turn the tables on him by bringing up domestic U.S. politics. In recent days he has spoken about the prosecution of Capitol rioters while discoursing on Black Lives Matter protests, a go-to tactics when outsiders seek to call attention to stifling of internal dissent or lack of press freedoms.
Biden also must decide how direct he wants to be when he warns Russia about ransomware attacks the U.S. believes come from its soil, even if not government-run operations.
Biden said this week: 'I'm going to make clear to President Putin that there are areas where we can cooperate if he chooses.
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.'
The two men are set to meet in Geneva at the Villa de la Grange, a building with a long history that is located near the luxury hotel where Biden is staying. With its stocked Empire bookcases, Trompe l'oeil ceiling details, and colorful rose garden, the building and grounds offers bountiful opportunities for photo-ops and small talk.
This article has been adapted from its original source.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd.