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5 Things To Watch At The Biden-Putin Summit

In this 2011 photo, Joe Biden, then vice president, shakes hands with Vladimir Putin, then Russia's prime minister, in Moscow. President Biden will hold a summit with Putin this week in Geneva, a face-to-face meeting between the two leaders that comes amid escalating tensions between the U.S. and Russia.
Alexander Zemlianichenko
In this 2011 photo, Joe Biden, then vice president, shakes hands with Vladimir Putin, then Russia's prime minister, in Moscow. President Biden will hold a summit with Putin this week in Geneva, a face-to-face meeting between the two leaders that comes amid escalating tensions between the U.S. and Russia.

The Biden administration wants a more stable and predictable relationship with Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to show that his country is taken seriously as a world power. That is the backdrop for the first summit between the U.S. and Russian presidents, which will take place in Geneva on Wednesday.

"Russia is quite invested in having a very friction-filled rather than friction-free relationship with the United States," warns Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution.

U.S.-Russian relations have been in a downward spiral since Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea and its interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

With recent ransomware attacks on U.S. companies, the poisoning and jailing of a leading opposition figure in Russia, and Kremlin support for a brutal crackdown on protesters in Belarus, it's easy to see that the summit between Biden and Putin has a crowded agenda.

The expectation in Moscow is that President Biden will be much tougher on Russia than the Trump administration was, so the Kremlin views it as a positive sign that a summit is taking place so early in Biden's term.

The Kremlin reacted with outrage after Biden agreed in a March interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos that Putin is a "killer." Putin first challenged Biden to a public debate, and when Biden later proposed a summit, the Kremlin portrayed the White House as trying to make up for the remark.

The Kremlin and White House view the Geneva summit as a chance for the two presidents to map out how they will manage a difficult relationship over the next four years. Here are five things to keep an eye on as the U.S. and Russian leaders meet.

Areas of cooperation

National security adviser Jake Sullivan says the U.S. is hoping that the two presidents will come out of the meeting with clear instructions to their teams on "strategic stability." Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, also uses that phrase, calling "strategic stability" the most important subject of the summit.

The expression refers to the world's two biggest nuclear powers maintaining a balance of power that prevents them from sliding into open conflict. That includes the New START arms control treaty, which the U.S. and Russia agreed to extend within days of Biden taking office.

Washington also wants to cooperate with Russia on Arctic and climate issues. Putin participated in Biden's virtual climate summit in April.

Other issues where the U.S. and Russia could cooperate include diplomacy to curb Iran's nuclear program, reducing the threat of war on the Korean peninsula and preventing Afghanistan from again becoming a safe haven for international terrorists.

Human rights

President Biden has said that human rights will be central to his foreign policy, so experts are watching to see how specific he gets and whether he raises the jailing and poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the banning of Navalny's political network and a crackdown on media, including on the U.S. funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which is facing $3.4 million in fines for not adhering to strict labeling requirements demanded of groups designated as "foreign agents" by the Kremlin.

The families of Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed, two Americans imprisoned in Russia, are campaigning for their release. In an interview from prison with CNN, Whelan appealed to Biden to "aggressively discuss and resolve" the issue of U.S. citizens in Russian detention. Whelan has been sentenced to 16 years for espionage; Reed is serving nine years for endangering the life and health of Russian police officers. Both Whelan and Reed maintain their innocence.

There is speculation that Russia wants to swap Whelan and Reed for Russian nationals in U.S. prisons, such as convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout and alleged drug smuggler Konstantin Yaroshenko.


Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that President Biden will raise the issue of recent ransomware attacks and tell Putin that "states cannot be in the business of harboring those who are engaged in these kind of attacks."

Putin has dismissed the suggestion that Russia was involved in recent attacks on the JBS meatpacking company and Colonial Pipeline as "nonsense" and "ridiculous."

Russia has consistently denied any involvement in cyberattacks on the U.S. government and political institutions. Still, the Kremlin has acknowledged there is a problem — and less than two months before the 2020 presidential election, Putin proposed signing a treaty with the U.S. that would prohibit cyberattacks, a suggestion the Trump administration ignored.

Belarus and Ukraine

Belarus' exiled pro-democracy leaders want Biden to press Putin to back a peaceful transfer of power in their country. Especially since a disputed election last August, Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 27 years, has cracked down on his opponents with mass detentions, beatings and torture, even forcing down a European airliner last month to arrest a Belarusian opposition activist and his Russian girlfriend, who were on board.

Facing sanctions from the U.S. and Europe, Lukashenko has turned to Putin, his only ally, for moral and economic support.

Exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya wants the Biden administration to step up the pressure. "Lukashenko is turning my country into a North Korea of Europe; non-transparent, unpredictable, and dangerous," she told a Senate hearing.

In Ukraine, leaders had high hopes when Biden took office, as he had been the Obama administration's point man on the country when Russia invaded in 2014. The Biden-Putin meeting comes as a disappointment for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who had been trying to sit down with Biden before the Geneva summit. Zelenskyy wants the United States to play a more active role in resolving Ukraine's seven-year conflict with Russia. Putin has suggested that Ukraine is a "red line" that the United States shouldn't cross.

Biden phoned Zelenskyy on June 7, pledging "unwavering commitment"to Ukraine's sovereignty and inviting him to visit the White House later this summer.

The diplomatic relationship

After tit-for-tat expulsions and closures of diplomatic properties, the United States is running a skeleton crew in its Moscow embassy, with U.S. consulates in St. Petersburg, Vladivostok and Yekaterinburg either shut or suspended. Russians seeking to visit the United States currently must apply for visas in a third country.

Following Biden's "killer" remark about Putin, Russia's ambassador in Washington returned home and the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, John Sullivan, left Russia on the Kremlin's urging.

The State Department insists Sullivan was not expelled and that he plans to return in the coming weeks.

Blinken spoke about this with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, on the sidelines of an Arctic Council meeting last month in Iceland, but they are looking to the two presidents for decisions about the diplomatic relationship.

"It's our view," Blinken told reporters, "that if the leaders of Russia and the United States can work together cooperatively, our people, the world, can be a safer and more secure place."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.