US president Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are meeting in Geneva on Wednesday for talks aimed at arresting a rapid decline in relations between two countries beset by mutual distrust.
In their first face-to-face encounter as leaders, the presidents will grapple with accusations, complaints and charges against one another, including alleged Russian cyber attacks and election meddling, US sanctions against Moscow and the Kremlin’s misgivings over Nato military expansion in eastern Europe.
Other irritants in the relationship are torn-up arms control agreements, war in Ukraine and Moscow’s jailing of opposition activist Alexei Navalny, leaving few obvious areas of co-operation.
Biden has described Putin as a “worthy adversary” ahead of his meeting and said he was going to clarify to the Russian leader “what the red lines are”. Russia was seeking to drive a wedge in transatlantic solidarity and the US was experiencing an increase in malicious cyber activity, he added.
“I’m going to make clear to President Putin that there are areas where we can co-operate, if he chooses,” Biden said on Monday in Brussels. “And if he chooses not to co-operate and acts in a way that he has in the past, relative to cyber security and some other activities, then we will respond. We will respond in kind.”
The summit, which is taking place in the 18th-century Villa La Grange by Lake Geneva, is due to begin at 1pm local time and could last as long as five hours, including breaks and talks between the two delegations, the Kremlin said.
The presidents will meet in two formats: one a small group including the US secretary of state and Russia’s foreign minister, and the other in a larger setting.
Biden travelled to the Swiss city after a week in Europe meeting G7, EU and Nato allies. The response to threats posed by Russia was continually raised in talks with western leaders. On Wednesday, the EU warned in a foreign policy paper of a “negative spiral” in EU-Russian relations.
The US president said world leaders had thanked him for holding the summit, which some analysts have criticised as handing Putin a diplomatic victory.
Moscow has sought to play down expectations of any major breakthroughs at the talks. Analysts on both sides suggested that by simply taking place, the meeting could at least mark a post-cold war nadir in the bilateral relationship.
Putin’s foreign affairs adviser Yuri Ushakov described relations between Moscow and Washington as “dire”. “I think that both sides understand that it is time to start tackling this backlog that has piled up,” he told Russian news agencies.
The White House and the Kremlin have both said they will focus on arms control, cyber security and climate change. The US wants to discuss human rights, co-operation on Iran and Afghanistan and Washington’s support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine, where Russia massed 100,000 troops earlier this year.
Kremlin officials said the talks would also feature a potential exchange of citizens held in each others’ prisons.
Ambassadors posted to both countries left earlier in the year after a chain of events prompted by Biden agreeing with an interviewer that Putin was a “killer”. Both ambassadors are expected to return to their posts in Moscow and Washington following the summit, according to three people familiar with the plans.
While he has acceded to Russian requests over diplomatic choreography following the meeting — which might suggest a thaw in relations — Biden will conduct a solo press conference rather than make a joint appearance with Putin.
In 2018, Donald Trump gave a joint press conference with Putin in which the US leader appeared to side with his Russian counterpart over his own intelligence community.