There was arguably a measure of pregnant symbolism when Joe Biden shook hands with Vladimir Putin in Geneva on Wednesday.
The Presidents of the United States of America and Russia have agreed to disagree at the summit, which was potentially hugely significant. This is perhaps quite the most charitable construct that can be drawn on the interaction. Little concrete progress was effected.
Disagreements were stated, said President Biden, but not in a hyperbolic way, and he said Russia did not want a new Cold War. President Putin said his counterpart across the Atlantic was an experienced statesman and the two “spoke the same language”.
It was presumably a calculated diplomatic excercise at a rarefied level. The talks lasted around three hours, less time than was scheduled.
Mr Biden said they did not need to spend more time talking and there was now a genuine prospect to improve relations with Russia.
There were two striking developments. The two sides agreed to begin a dialogue on nuclear arms control.
They also said they would return ambassadors to each other’s capitals.
These were the two specific issues raised; for the rest, the talks were rather generic.
The envoys, it bears recall, were mutually withdrawn for consultations in March, after the United States accused Russia of meddling in the 2020 presidential election. There was little sign of agreement on other issues, including cyber-security, Ukraine and the fate of the Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, who is currently serving a two-and-a-half-year sentence in a penal colony. Mr Biden was emphatic that there would be “devastating consequences” for Russia if Navalny died in prison.
Mr Putin hinted at a possible deal on exchanging prisoners, saying he believed compromises could be found. There was no consensus on the other contentious issue of cyber-attacks.
Mr Putin brushed away accusations of Russian responsibility, saying that most cyber-attacks in Russia originated from the US. The US President told Mr Putin that critical infrastructure, such as water or energy, must be “off-limits” to hacking or other attacks. “I looked at him and said how would you feel if ransomware took on the pipelines from your oil fields? He said it would matter,” Mr Biden said, adding that if Russia violated these “basic norms” the US would retaliate.
The two sides differed sharply on human rights, including the right to protest. Mr Putin dismissed US concerns about Mr Navalny, who recently undertook a 24-day hunger strike.
He said Mr Navalny had ignored the law and knew he would face imprisonment when he returned to Russia after having sought medical treatment in Germany.
Mr Navalny says he was poisoned with a nerve agent on Mr Putin’s orders, an accusation the latter denies. Overall, however, the comity of nations does concur with Mr Navalny. What is the benchmark for success following this summit? Arguably, President Biden will see success in the fact that they engaged in detailed conversations.