Biden and Putin say their summit was constructive as the world waits for results

Switzerland Biden Putin
U.S. President Joe Biden, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin pose for media during their meeting at the 'Villa la Grange' in Geneva, Switzerland in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday.
Mikhail Metzel | AP

Updated: 1:20 p.m.

President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Geneva Wednesday. Here's what you need to know:

  • The closed-door meeting, which began at about 7:45 a.m. ET, lasted 3 hours, 21 minutes, shorter than the White House had projected.

  • They held separate news conferences with Putin going first.

  • Putin described the meeting as "constructive."

  • Biden said he did what he came to do.

Biden Says He Confronted Putin on Human Rights

Biden bounded onto a stage flanked by large American flags to tell U.S. journalists about his meeting with Putin, taking off his aviator sunglasses as he reached the lectern.

"It was important to meet in person," Biden said. "I did what I came to do."

He said his goal with the meeting was to establish a relationship that is "stable and predictable." But by Biden's telling, he raised uncomfortable topics including ransomware attacks emanating from Russia, the wrongful imprisonment of two Americans and Putin's mistreatment of political opponents.

"How could I be the president of the United States of America and not speak out about a violation of human rights," Biden said. "I made it clear to President Putin that we will continue to raise issues of fundamental human rights, because that is who we are."

Biden said he also tried to establish some basic rules of the road, suggesting critical infrastructure be off limits for cyber attacks.

"The principle is one thing," Biden said. "It has to be backed up by practice."

There was an agreement, he said, for experts from the two nations to work together to establish guard rails for cybersecurity.

Aides had said Biden wasn't there to make friends or build trust with a rival he describes as "bright," "tough" and "a worthy adversary." There was s much on the U.S. agenda — from recent ransomware attacks perpetrated by Russian cybercriminals and the air piracy in Belarus to arms control and climate change. There were also concerns to be voiced about human rights abuses, strongman tactics against opposition leaders and the imprisonment of two Americans.

How Putin described the meeting

Putin addressed reporters, many from state-owned Russian media, following the meeting. He said the conversations were constructive. "I think there was no hostility, quite the contrary," said Putin.

He said they reached an agreement to start negotiations on cybersecurity, but took no responsibility for the cyber attacks and election meddling that U.S. intelligence has blamed on Russia and Russia-based cybercriminals.

When asked by an American reporter about Russia's human rights abuses and imprisonment of Putin's political opponents, including Alexy Navalny, the Russian president brought up the Jan. 6 insurrection, seemingly expressing sympathy for the rioters who were arrested.

"People came to the U.S. Congress with political demands," Putin said. "They are being called domestic terrorists."

Still, Putin described Biden as experienced and balanced. "We have to represent our countries and the relationship is a pragmatic one, primarily," Putin said.

A chaotic arrival

"It's always better to meet face to face," Biden said as reporters crowded into the book-lined room where the leaders will meet.

For the initial part of the meeting, which lasted 90 minutes, the two men were joined by just one top aide each, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. It was then opened up to a larger circle of aides.

"The U.S. and Russian relations have a lot of issues," Putin said through a translator. "I hope that our meeting will be productive."

The Russian president slouched in his chair for what became an extended and raucous photo op, with journalists jockeying for position. Biden sat up straight in his seat, positioned several feet away from Putin.

NPR's Franco Ordoñez, who is among the reporters traveling with Biden, described a chaotic scene, with the pool of journalists traveling with the U.S. president initially barred from entry to the room. There was a lot of pushing and yelling, and at one point, Ordoñez says, a U.S. official tried to pull him through the scrum and into the room but "another non-U.S. security agent grabbed me and threw me back."

Security personnel corral members of the press  covering President Biden's meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday in Geneva.
Security personnel corral members of the press covering President Biden's meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday in Geneva.
Patrick Semansky/AP

Eventually, a few U.S. journalists were able to get into the room and get a view of the two leaders, but the pushing and shoving by security officials and Russian media never stopped.

Earlier Biden and Putin shook hands outdoors at the entrance to Villa La Grange, lingering on the handshake long enough for photographers to capture the moment. It was the start of the first formal meeting between the leaders of the two nations in three years, a stretch in which U.S.-Russian relations have grown increasingly strained.

What's on the table

Aides say Biden isn't there to make friends or build trust with a rival he describes as "bright," "tough" and "a worthy adversary." There's much on the U.S. agenda — from recent ransomware attacks perpetrated by Russian cybercriminals and the air piracy in Belarus to arms control and climate change. There are concerns to be voiced about human rights abuses, strongman tactics against opposition leaders and the imprisonment of two Americans.

The last meeting between Putin and President Donald Trump ended with the now-infamous Helsinki press conference at which Trump sided with the Russian leader over U.S. intelligence agencies (a stance that Trump later tried to backtrack).

There won't be a repeat of that scene this time, not least because Biden and Putin won't be holding a joint press conference after their meeting. Aides say the meeting is expected to last four to five hours but won't include a meal, "no breaking of bread," a senior administration official told reporters.

In the lead-up to the summit, Biden refused to say what he hopes to get out of the meeting, what he intends to push Putin on or what success would look like, saying it wouldn't make sense to negotiate in the press.

"I will tell you this: I'm going to make clear to President Putin that there are areas where we can cooperate, if he chooses," Biden said in a press conference Monday. "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."

Biden met Putin when he was vice president, and he has openly criticized the Russian leader, once calling him a "killer." Asked about those comments in an NBC interview ahead of the summit, Putin laughed it off. He also downplayed hacking concerns as he has with other cyber intrusions blamed on Russia.

"[Biden's] view is that this is not a meeting about trust, it's not a meeting about friendship — it's a meeting about figuring out where we can find common ground, and also being straightforward and candid about areas where we have concern," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a midair briefing on Air Force One.

Biden told reporters he didn't want to have a joint press conference with Putin to avoid breathless analysis of body language.

But the lack of a joint press conference does mean that Biden won't have to stand next to Putin with an open mic. Instead, in a highly choreographed sequence of events, Putin will hold his press conference first. Then Biden will take questions from reporters. This setup will allow the American president to characterize the meeting and, if necessary, counter the narrative unspooled by Putin.

What Republicans are saying

As the meeting was getting underway, the Republican National Committee sent out a statement criticizing Biden for inviting Putin to meet.

Danielle Alvarez, the communications director for the RNC, said in the statement that the meeting was a win that "Biden has handed Russia."

"The American people deserve a leader who prioritizes our interests and holds bad actors accountable," she said.

There has been a long-standing tradition of refraining from criticizing a president while on an overseas trip, but that practice has gradually eroded. Republicans have been preparing to portray Biden as weak, regardless of how the meeting goes. U.S. presidents going back to George W. Bush have all met with Putin during their time in office.

During the Trump administration, Democrats and even many Republicans criticized Trump for meeting with North Korea's president, Kim Jong Un, without preconditions.

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