Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin hadn’t even sat down before tensions flared at the 18th-century Villa La Grange, a beautiful Swiss mansion besieged Wednesday by a 21st-century press group. The two men seemed friendly enough when they first shook hands as leaders. But the sun-beaten journalists behind them pushed and screamed, some throwing themselves to the ground, as they struggled to get into the leaders’ only joint appearance of the day.
“The media brawl was the most chaotic its grouper has seen at a presidential event in nine years,” wrote an American reporter from inside the tumult, which erupted when the press pack tried to follow the two leaders into the village. . “The Russian security yelled at the journalists to come out and started putting pressure on the journalists. Journalists and White House officials shouted that Russian security should stop touching us. “
The conflict felt tribal, as did the loyalties. “Of course the Americans cannot do without a scandal,” scoffed a Russian state journalist while filming the battle from a distance.
It was a rare moment of chaos at a carefully selected Geneva summit that intentionally left little to chance. For Biden, the summit was designed as anti-Helsinki, an opportunity to show that Putin would not take advantage of him the way Donald Trump did in Finland in 2018. That meeting went so badly that Fiona Hill, a former Trump adviser, said she considered feign a medical emergency or activate a fire alarm to end the press conference.
On Wednesday, Biden did not share the stage with Putin after the talks, and the two men held separate press conferences (Biden said it was to avoid theater on stage). His press groups were cornered separately for much of the day to avoid awkward questions, and Putin’s arrival was set before Biden’s to prevent the Russian leader from keeping the US president waiting.
Meanwhile, the streets and waterways of Geneva were patrolled by camouflaged soldiers to ensure safety and the absence of protests, the Parc la Grange wrapped in barbed wire days before the summit. By the time Biden and Putin traveled in their caravans along Lake Quai de Cologny, the promenade resembled a Geneva Fortress, both host and hostage to a summit that could only take place in a small list of cities. European.
Everything went as smoothly as it could. Speaking after the four-hour talks, Putin praised Biden’s “moral values” and called the talks “extremely constructive” while calling their relationship “pragmatic.”
He still peppered his comments with claims that the United States was funding his opposition and seemed to sympathize with the rioters on Capitol Hill (Biden called it “ridiculous” to compare them to Russia’s opposition). But there were hopes, however fleeting, of progress. “There is no happiness in life, only glimpses of it. Appreciate them, ”Putin said, paraphrasing Tolstoy. He seemed quite optimistic.
Biden, who spoke second, said he believed Putin “was not looking for a cold war.” “It was important to meet in person. I did what I came to do, ”Biden said. He claimed that he had threatened Putin with retaliation if 16 types of critical infrastructure were targeted by cyberattacks, but said the conversation was “not hyperbolic.” “There has been too much of that,” he added, saying that within the next six months to a year, “we will find out … if we have a strategic dialogue that matters.”
The meeting took place inside a library full of books, where Putin and Biden, the fifth American president the Russian leader has met since 2000, shared common phrases with mute expressions, speaking the language of diplomacy but hardly that of affected.
“Many questions have accumulated in Russian-American relations that require discussion at the highest level and I hope our meeting will be productive,” Putin said in an understatement masterclass, while Biden nodded.
“Thank you. It’s always better to meet face-to-face,” Biden replied. He called both countries “great powers,” something the Russian president, who apparently got angry when Barack Obama called his country a regional power, would most likely appreciate.
This was the first time Putin had ventured outside of Russia since last year, facing criticism for taking refuge in a “bunker” as he forced anyone who wished to see him to two weeks of quarantine in a Russian hotel. Shortly after dawn on Wednesday, journalists at Putin’s pool queued in front of the Mandarin Oriental hotel for express PCR tests administered by Kremlin doctors who arrived from Moscow.
Across a bridge, pro-democracy activists hung a banner with an image of jailed politician Alexei Navalny. Swiss police in a skiff removed it in less than five minutes, fished the banner in the waters below the Pont de la Coulouvrenière and took it with them.
In truth, Putin had little to fear other than the coronavirus in his first meeting with Biden as president. The Russian leader has maintained a dialogue with the United States despite its invasion of Ukraine, the Novichok poisonings in Salisbury and Navalny, its alleged interference in the 2016 US presidential elections and its support for Belarusian autocrat Alexander Lukashenko. Issues that aroused his anger, such as the possibility of Ukraine’s accession to NATO, he seemed to simply ignore. “There is nothing to discuss,” he said.
It was Biden who had to exorcise the ghost of Helsinki, confronting Putin and showing that he had restored the balance in US foreign policy, just as he had tried to reassure allies in the UK and Brussels during his European tour of 10 days.
“During this past week, I think the United States has shown the world that we are back with our allies,” Biden said. “We brought our fellow democracies together to make concerted commitments to meet the greatest challenges facing our world, and we have now established a clear foundation for how we intend to deal with Russia and the relationship between the United States and Russia.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism