Putin savored the global spotlight after his direct but largely fruitless meeting with Biden

Biden Putin
US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva. Mikhail Metzel/Getty Images
  • Biden and Putin’s meeting on Wednesday ended up pretty much as expected.
  • In typical Putin fashion, the Russian leader held a long, rambling press conference.
  • Biden sounded cautiously optimistic about improving relations but made clear that challenges remain.
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Russian President Vladimir Putin held a long, rambling press conference after his historic meeting with US President Joe Biden on Wednesday, exhibiting his affinity for being the center of attention before the world as Biden defended giving Putin this platform in return for laying out the US’s priorities and red lines face-to-face.

Putin used the press conference to portray the US as the primary catalyst for tensions between Moscow and Washington while downplaying the Kremlin’s crackdown on dissent with an extraordinary display of whataboutism.

The Russian leader, who’s been in power for 20 years, said that “everything to do with the deterioration of our mutual relations was initiated” by the US and not Russia.

Putin appeared to relish being in the spotlight. “Putin really seems to be enjoying this press conference,” Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Russia, said in a tweet.

In a separate press conference, Biden took a cautiously optimistic tone about the US’s and Russia’s willingness to work together on a narrow set of issues, with nuclear arms control at the top of the list.

Beyond resuming talks on nuclear arms, Biden and Putin also agreed to return their ambassadors to their respective foreign posts.

Biden, whose political career has been defined by foreign policy, portrayed the summit as a success from a diplomatic standpoint.

“I did what I came to do,” Biden said. “No. 1, identify areas of practical work our two countries can do to advance our mutual interests and also benefit the world. Two, communicate directly – directly – that the United States will respond to actions that impair our vital interests or those of our allies. And three, to clearly lay out our country’s priorities and our values, so he heard it straight from me.”

Biden added: “The bottom line is I told President Putin that we need to have some basic rules of the road that we can all abide by.”

Amid criticism that he had effectively rewarded Putin for bad behavior by offering a high-level meeting, Biden underscored the advantage of holding in-person meetings with adversaries to work through differences.

There’s “no substitute” for “face-to-face dialogue between leaders,” Biden said.

Biden also said he’d pressed Putin hard on human-rights concerns, adding that he had an obligation to zero in on this.

“How could I be the president of the United States of America and not speak out against the violation of human rights?” Biden said.

-Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) June 16, 2021

Relations between Washington and Moscow have deteriorated to their lowest point since the Cold War.

Putin’s unilateral annexation of Crimea in 2014; the war in Ukraine involving Kremlin-backed rebels; Russian election interference; the poisoning and imprisonment of the Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny; and cybersecurity issues like the SolarWinds hack have driven the contentious dynamic.

Putin has taken remarkable steps to consolidate power over that time. Biden was the fifth US president the Russian leader had met with, underscoring his extensive influence.

Putin has frequently scoffed at US criticism of his increasingly authoritarian leadership and aggressive foreign-policy moves, routinely accusing the US and its Western allies of hypocrisy.

Putin did so again on Wednesday, justifying the Kremlin’s effort to squash critics by demonizing the Black Lives Matter movement and comparing it to the US government’s prosecution of people involved in the insurrection on January 6. Biden later dismissed this as a “ridiculous” comparison.

Making it clear he’s not naive about how intractable Putin is, Biden said he was “not confident” that Russia would dramatically alter its behavior.

“There’s much more work ahead. I’m not suggesting that any of this is done,” Biden said. “But we’ve gotten a lot of business done on this trip.”