Vladamir Putin and Joe Biden meet in Geneva (Image: Sipa USA/Dmitry Azarov)

US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin met in Geneva, Switzerland, on Wednesday for their first in-person summit as the relationship between their two countries has deteriorated to its lowest point in decades.

The meeting was seen as an effort by both countries to establish ground rules to ease tensions in the wake of a series of cyberattacks attributed to Russian hackers, sanctions over Moscow’s alleged interference in the 2020 US presidential elections, and a rally of diplomatic expulsions.

As an important first step, the two leaders agreed to return their respective ambassadors to Washington and Moscow after they were both recalled for consultations earlier this year. 

After nearly four hours of meetings, Biden and Putin held separate press conferences, where they characterized the summit as productive and outlined a limited range of areas for further discussion on cybersecurity and prisoner exchanges. In a joint communiqué issued after the meeting, the two presidents reaffirmed their commitment to averting nuclear war and announced plans to resume strategic stability talks to lay the groundwork for future arms control negotiations. 

Here are some of Foreign Policy’s key takeaways from the Geneva meeting. 

A radical departure from the Helsinki Summit

Biden’s meeting with Putin took place almost three years after the now infamous summit in Helsinki, Finland, where then-US president Donald Trump said he believed Putin over his own intelligence agencies on the question of alleged election interference. Trump’s top Russia adviser Fiona Hill would later admit she considered pulling a fire alarm or faking a medical emergency just to bring it to an end. 

“It’s been a while since we had normal summitry and normal engagement where you can read the text, listen to the interviews, and make sense of it,” said Andrey Baklitsky, an arms control expert with the Moscow-based PIR Center think tank.

The spectre of the Helsinki summit and Putin’s reputation for attempting to embarrass his interlocutors likely informed the decision to hold separate press conferences on Wednesday. Although there wasn’t the same backslapping atmosphere, both leaders described the meetings as respectful and productive.

In his press conference, which took place an hour before Biden’s, Putin said although he didn’t “swear eternal friendship” to his US counterpart, he saw a “spark of hope” in his eyes. Biden, for his part, described the summit as “good, positive” and said although there was disagreement, it was not “done in a hyperbolic atmosphere”.

That’s not to say it was all smiles. Biden warned there would be “devastating consequences” should Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny die in prison and warned the Russian leader against conducting cyberattacks on critical infrastructure, such as energy and water supplies, in the United States. 

Putin refused to mention Navalny by name in response to repeated questions about human rights in Russia, instead raising the United States’ own challenges on issues of gun violence and the continued operation of the Guantánamo Bay detention center.

Putin “felt very comfortable. He was having a good time; he went through all those whataboutisms,” said Michael McFaul, who served as US ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration. 

No breakthroughs but potential for progress

As expected, there were no major breakthroughs in Geneva. But both presidents identified a handful of key areas where there may be some potential for progress, starting with the agreement to return their ambassadors to their respective posts. “If you want to get something done that’s complicated with Russia, or any place, you need an embassy team with the staffing to get into the issue and advise Washington what is and isn’t possible,” said Dan Fried, who served as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.

Biden also raised the issue of two Americans, Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed, who have separately received lengthy prison sentences in Russia. Putin said the two countries might be able to “find some compromise there” and noted the US State Department and Russian Foreign Ministry would work on the issue. Further talks on prisoner exchanges could prove thorny because of a mismatch in the prisoners each side wants returned. Although Washington regards the charges against Whelan and Reed to be bogus, Russia is likely to seek notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout and convicted drug smuggler Konstantin Yaroshenko to be released in return. 

A brief joint communiqué issued by the White House and the Kremlin in the wake of the summit reaffirmed a 1985 commitment made in Geneva by then-US president Ronald Regan and then-Soviet Union president Mikhail Gorbachev that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”. 

With just one arms control agreement left in place between Russia and the United States, who hold some 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons between them, the communiqué also agreed to bilateral strategic stability talks, which could pave the way for future arms control negotiations.

“I think it’s good that they did that, that they got a joint statement. It’s important even if it was pretty thin,” McFaul said. 

Time will tell

It’s still unclear what the two leaders discussed about the laundry list of other issues likely to have come up during the meeting, including climate change, the Arctic, Belarus, Syria, and the ongoing war in Ukraine. 

The history of whether or not the summit will go down as a success is yet to be written. “The hard work comes the day after the summit,” McFaul said. Although the two leaders have identified a few limited areas where they may be able to make some progress, it will now fall to their administrations to hammer out the details amid ongoing tensions and intense political scrutiny in Washington. This was something Biden seemed to be keenly aware of in his press conference when he said “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”.