Biden looking to build momentum for Putin meeting

President Joe Biden
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President Biden is looking to build momentum heading into a highly anticipated meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday.

Biden has spent the last few days rallying allies in the Group of Seven (G-7) and NATO around the need to confront Russia and meeting privately with foreign leaders to gauge how he should approach his one-on-one with Putin.

The communique signed by G-7 leaders specifically called out Russia’s use of chemical weapons on its own soil, its aggression toward Ukraine and its crackdown on dissent. Biden raised Russia in each of his pull-aside meetings with fellow NATO leaders at Monday’s summit, and he has worked to carefully manage expectations for what can come out of the Putin meeting.

“I shared with our allies what I’ll convey to President Putin: That I’m not looking for conflict with Russia, but that we will respond if Russia continues its harmful activities and that we will not fail to defend the trans-Atlantic alliance or stand up for democratic values,” Biden said at a press conference on Monday, warning that Moscow is seeking to “drive a wedge” among NATO members.

The president was otherwise tight-lipped about his strategy heading into Wednesday’s meeting, saying it would be unwise to disclose to the press how he planned to approach Putin.

Biden is heading into Wednesday’s summit in Geneva in a tricky position, as both presidents agree that the U.S.-Russia relationship is at a low point.

He plans to confront Putin on a range of matters, including Moscow’s cyberattacks, election interference and human rights abuses following the Kremlin’s suspected poisoning and subsequent jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Biden has pledged to stand up for the sovereignty of Ukraine amid heightened Russian aggression.

At the same time, Biden’s stated goal is to steady the relationship in a way that allows both countries to work on issues of mutual concern.  

“I think the best that one could hope for out of the Biden-Putin meeting would be an agreement to disagree on some of the issues that cause the most friction,” said Charles Kupchan, who served as senior director for European affairs on former President Obama’s National Security Council. “It’s worth trying to take some baby steps, and maybe if those baby steps are successful you then have the basis for going after the tougher issues.”

The format of the meeting has not come entirely into focus, though Biden plans to hold a solo press conference afterward instead of a joint press conference with the Russian president.

Biden sought to downplay the optics of the meeting and the lack of a joint press conference, explaining he wanted the focus to be squarely on the message he delivered to his Russian counterpart behind closed doors.

“I don’t want to get into being diverted by, did they shake hands, who talked the most and the rest,” Biden told reporters on Sunday.

Former President Trump’s 2018 summit with Putin in Helsinki was infamously marred by Trump standing alongside Putin and publicly taking his word that Russia did not meddle in the 2016 election to boost his candidacy. Significant focus was also put on the lack of aides in the room for their meeting.

“For four years we had this extraordinary situation where Russia was a domestic political issue,” said Angela Stent, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies. “I think [Biden] would like to remove that and have Russia being what it normally is, which is a foreign policy problem.”

Putin gave a rare interview to NBC News ahead of the summit, during which he denied Russia’s involvement in election interference and cyberattacks and tried to turn back scrutiny on the U.S. by claiming that it interferes in political affairs of other countries and suppresses dissidents.

In one exchange as he dodged reporter Keir Simmons’s questions, Putin suggested that prosecutors pressing charges against the Capitol rioters were engaged in “persecution for political opinions.”

Stent predicted that Putin would similarly point to events like Jan. 6 and mass shootings when trying to make the case to Biden that the U.S. does not have any business getting involved in Russian affairs, like the crackdown on Navalny and the opposition.

The White House has said it hopes to establish a “stable and predictable relationship” with Russia under Biden. But experts and officials close to the administration cast doubt on Biden’s ability to achieve that, given that Putin has thrived on unpredictability and sowing chaos. Biden has spent the days leading up to the summit projecting a position of strength and presenting himself as a leader who will be direct and blunt with the notoriously slippery Russian leader.

Biden singled out his meeting with Putin in a speech laying out his European agenda, telling U.S. troops at a base in England that he will tell the Russian leader “what I want him to know,” which drew raucous applause from the soldiers gathered.

On Monday, Biden warned of the consequences should Navalny die in prison, saying it would show Moscow “has little or no intention of abiding by basic fundamental human rights.”

Biden reinforced American lockstep with NATO allies most directly on the front-line with Russia, holding bilateral and multilateral talks with the leaders of Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

And the president said there was a consensus among every world leader he spoke with that it was the right time to meet with Putin, despite some criticism among lawmakers that a summit so early in Biden’s first term was handing the Russian leader a win.

Constanze Stelzenmüller, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, agreed with Biden’s strategy to meet with Putin, saying that contempt for actions by authoritarians does not exclude meeting with them.

“It’s important to talk to these folks with a straight face, to not succumb to their tricks, not give them more airspace than is absolutely necessary, but allow them to put their positions out there and refute them calmly one by one,” she said. “I think that’s what grown-up democracies do.”

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