Fresh from supportive summits with allies, Joe Biden declared himself ready Tuesday to take on Russia’s Vladimir Putin in far more confrontational talks.
Biden meets for his first talks as president with the Russian leader on Wednesday, in what’s expected to be roughly a half-day of discussions behind closed doors.
A reporter soon after Biden’s arrival in Geneva on Tuesday shouted out a question on whether he was ready for Wednesday’s talks. “I am always ready,” Biden answered.
Biden’s European tour has aimed to restore US partnerships that were damaged under former President Donald Trump, who openly invited what American intelligence services said was Russian interference in US political campaigns, and who sought out Putin and other autocrats he saw as strong.
In line with the tepid Biden-Putin relationship, Putin’s government responded with indignation earlier this year after Biden said he considered the Russian a “killer”.
According to a senior administration official granted anonymity to disclose internal discussions, Biden is hoping to find small areas of agreement with the Putin, including potentially returning ambassadors to Washington and Moscow.
That and other diplomatic issues, including the tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats and closure of consulates, will be high on the agenda for both sides.
The US ambassador to Russia, John Sullivan, a rare relic of the Trump administration, and Anatoly Antonov, the Russian ambassador to Washington, will both be in Geneva for the summit.
The two men departed their posts earlier this year as part of what both Russia and the United States describe as an all-time low in the two countries’ relationship.
In addition, Russia has complained for years about its eviction and loss of consulates in San Francisco and Seattle and other facilities in Maryland and New York.
The US, meanwhile, has been forced to close its consulate in St. Petersburg and is now facing the loss of Russian citizens employed by its embassy in Moscow, which will significantly reduce the consular services it is able to provide.
Biden also is looking to make progress on a new arms control agreement between the two nations, which agreed to a five-year extension of the remaining current pact in January.
Putin foreign affairs adviser Yuri Ushakov sought to moderate expectations for the summit, but he strongly emphasized its importance given the current tensions.
“It’s the first such meeting that takes place at a time when the bilateral relations are extremely bad,” he said.
“Both parties realize it’s time to start dealing with the issues that have piled up.”
Biden plans to raise issues ranging from cyberattacks to Putin’s treatment of his critic Alexei Navalny, who was poisoned and later jailed in what was seen as political retribution for exposing alleged Kremlin corruption and leading an anti-Putin movement.
In Geneva, a couple dozen Navalny supporters turned out in a sun-drenched square on Tuesday, and murals of a smiling Navalny holding his fingers in a heart shape, with the words “Hero of our time” in French, have popped up around the Swiss city in recent days.
Those reference a similar mural in St. Petersburg, Russia, that authorities quickly covered over.
Syria, where Russia is threatening to close the last humanitarian crossing into that country, also is on the leaders’ agenda.
Biden goes into Wednesday’s talks bolstered not only by the supportive words of European allies but by the tangible news of a major breakthrough in a 17-year trade dispute centered on rival subsidies for aircraft manufacturers.
Political sniping continued. House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy accused the Democratic president of deferring to Putin on his trip abroad and making America weaker.
“I don’t care about charming Europe and thinking you’re one of them,” McCarthy said, a day after Biden referred to Republicans as “fractured.”
But the hope is that Biden’s meeting with Putin might pay dividends, and no one in Brussels wanted to undermine the show of international unity that has been on display at the G-7 and NATO summits, according to EU officials.