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Biden begins long, tense meeting with Putin

Biden has said he plans to raise with the Russian leader cyberattacks, human rights abuses, Ukraine and election interference.
/ Source: NBC News

President Joe Biden sits down for the first time since taking office with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva on Wednesday in what’s expected to be an hours-long, contentious meeting — one where Biden has said he will lay out where U.S. red lines are, and the consequences for Russia if they're crossed.

Biden and Putin, who arrived at the summit site first, shook hands and exchanged a few brief words while posing for a photo on the red carpet outside the main entrance. As expected, neither gave remarks, and the two leaders did not respond to shouted questions from reporters. Following the greeting, the two disappeared inside, double doors closing behind them.

The summit is scheduled to last four to five hours and will be broken into two sections: a meeting featuring Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Putin and Russia’s foreign minister only, followed by a larger group session with additional participants. After the meetings, Putin will hold a solo press conference followed by one from Biden.

Security around Villa La Grange, the picturesque mansion and lakeside park where the summit is taking place, has been extremely tight. The park is blocked off by thick rolls of barbed-wire fencing with Swiss police patrolling the grounds. A large section of the city has been closed off with police boats dotting the crisp waters of Lake Geneva, in a city known for its neutrality and international cooperation.

Geneva is no stranger to high-profile diplomatic meetings. Former President Ronald Reagan met here in 1985 for the first time with then head of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev in what was seen as the beginning of the thaw between the two countries. But other than the location, there are expected to be few parallels between the meeting 36 years ago between the Russian and American leaders and the one taking place here Wednesday.

There are a range of thorny issues Biden has said he plans to raise, including cyberattacks, human rights abuses, aggression towards Ukraine and election interference.

Both the Russian ambassador to the U.S. and the U.S. ambassador to Russia will be in Geneva, and one of the items on the negotiating table will be their return to their overseas posts, said a person familiar with the planning. After Biden put in place a new round of sanctions on Russia, the U.S. ambassador was pressured to return to Washington, and the Russian ambassador was recalled in Moscow.

The logistics of the meeting give Biden several advantages. Since Putin, who is notoriously late, arrived first, Biden avoided the appearance of being left waiting. Having his secretary of state and longtime foreign policy adviser in the meeting with him will ensure there is someone who can focus on recording what happens and can also be available should there be more technical detail covered, said Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia under the Obama administration.

Not having a side-by-side press conference will also help Biden avoid the appearance of friendliness with Putin — an error that sparked widespread domestic criticism for former Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump following their own first meetings with Putin.

The White House isn’t expecting to announce any agreements to be reached out of the summit, but there could be an agreement by the two presidents to initiate talks around areas like nuclear security, administration officials have said.

While Biden has met with Putin before, much has changed in the decade since their last encounter. Putin has grown increasingly authoritarian at home and hostile to the West — he has annexed Crimea, been linked to the hack of U.S. companies and federal agencies, and interfered in the U.S. elections.

Biden has spent days preparing for the summit. Shortly before departing the U.S. for Europe, he gathered in the Roosevelt Room at the White House for a prep session with a group of outside Russia experts — including officials from the Trump and Obama administrations — to discuss a range of views about how to deal with Putin, according to a person familiar with the matter.

“He’s not just winging it. He’s putting a lot of time and attention into this meeting,” the person said.

Biden, who arrived in Geneva Tuesday afternoon, comes to the summit after days of meetings with America’s closest allies during a gathering of the Group of Seven leaders, which include Canada, the U.K., France, Italy, Germany and Japan, and a summit of the NATO alliance countries. He said at a press conference Monday that he had told some of those leaders what he planned to say to Putin.

“I shared with our allies that I will convey to President Putin that I’m not looking for conflict with Russia," said Biden, "but that we will respond if Russia continues its harmful activities."

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