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Biden and Putin agree: 'Nuclear war cannot be won'

June 16, 2021

US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin have concluded a high-stakes summit aimed at cooperation but dominated by deep disagreements.

Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Joe Biden
The meeting between the two leaders took less time than either side had expectedImage: Alexander Zemlianichenko/REUTERS

US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin have ended their highly anticipated summit in Geneva.

The leaders' first in-person meeting since Biden became president took place at a lakeside villa amid soaring tensions between their two countries.

As talks ended after less than the five hours either side thought they would need, Biden gave a thumbs up. Members of the US team said the meeting had been "quite successful."

After the meeting, the two sides released a joint statement on one of the main topics of discussion, nuclear proliferation. The statement read, "Nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought." 

DW Moscow correspondent Emily Sherwin said, "Biden managed to walk a fine line with Putin," recognizing Russia's desire to be seen as a major geopolitical power.

The joint US-Russian statement said progress on shared goals could be achieved, "even in periods of tension," going on to state, "The United States and Russia will embark together on an integrated bilateral Strategic Stability Dialogue in the near future that will be deliberate and robust."

The statement added that the countries "seek to lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures." 

What Putin said after the meeting

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who described Biden as a "well-balanced" and "experienced statesman" and the talks as "constructive," was the first of the two leaders to address reporters after the meeting, declaring: "The meeting was actually very efficient. It was substantive, it was specific. It was aimed at achieving results and one of them was pushing back the frontiers of trust."

Putin spoke of Biden's judgment on arms control, saying: "I think it is clear to everyone that President Biden has made the responsible and, in our view, perfectly timely decision to extend the New START treaty for five years, which means until 2024." 

"Of course, that begs the question of what happens next," Putin said. Pointing out that arms control discussions would be launched and held at the interagency level. Those high-level discussions were also announced in a joint White House-Kremlin statement released immediately after the summit concluded. 

Signed in 2010, the New START treaty limits the number of strategic nuclear warheads, missiles and bombers Russia and US can deploy to no more than 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads each.

Putin also praised Biden as an "experienced statesman" willing to sit down for hours with other leaders, as noted by DW's Richard Walker.

Western reporters pressed Putin on Russia's human rights record and the detention of Alexei Navalny. Putin refused to call Navalny by name, referring to him only as a "Russian citizen" and a "repeat offender." Putin went on to say: "This person knew that he was breaking the law in Russia. Consciously ignoring the requirements of the law, he went abroad for treatment," accusing Navalny of having, "deliberately acted to be detained." 
Putin also defended his crackdown on Navalny's anti-graft group, which he claims "publicly called for riots, involved minors in riots" and "publicly described how to make Molotov cocktails." Putin chafed at criticism of Russia's human rights record, calling out US "double standards," saying Washington was seeking to interfere in Russian domestic affairs.

Initially, he referenced the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the US, saying: "What we saw was disorder, disruption, violations of the law, etc. We feel sympathy for the United States of America, but we don’t want that to happen on our territory and we’ll do our utmost in order to not allow it to happen."

Putin also defended individuals who stormed the US Capitol on January 6, saying they had legitimate political demands and declaring that he "would not be lectured on human rights" by Washington.

Asked about his willingness to forego instability, which the US defines as a trait of Russian policy, in order to improve relations, Putin took the opportunity to forcefully rail on the US definition of predictability, calling it a "contradiction of terms," and noting that "just because the West believes it, does not mean that it is necessarily true." He then cited US withdrawal from a number of international arms treaties (INF, JCPOA, Open Skies) as well its active support for what he called a "coup d'état" in Ukraine, asking, "Is that what you call stability?"

When asked by a Canadian reporter to answer a question posed by her young daughter, namely why he was in Geneva? Putin said it was because he was, "Trying to make the world a safer place."

What Biden said after the meeting

US President Biden later addressed reporters at a separate briefing at which he also took questions.

In describing the one-on-one summit, Biden said: "I must tell you, the tone of the entire meetings, I guess it was a total of four hours, was good, positive. There wasn't any strident action taken. Where we disagreed, I disagreed, stated where it was. Where he disagreed, he stated. But it was not done in a hyperbolic atmosphere.

"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." 

Biden sought to stress goodwill toward Russia throughout, noting, "I also said there are areas where there is a mutual interest for us to cooperate, for our people ... but also for the benefit of the world and the security of the world. One of those issues is strategic stability." 

"And I'm pleased," Biden said, "that we have agreed today to launch a bilateral Strategic Stability Dialogue, diplomatic speak for saying get our military experts and our diplomats together to work on a mechanism that can lead to control of new and dangerous and sophisticated weapons that are coming on the scene now."

"Another area we spent a great deal of time on was cyber and cybersecurity," said Biden. "I talked about the proposition that certain critical infrastructure should be off-limits to attack. Period. By cyber or any other means, I gave them a list, if I am not mistaken, I don't have it in front of me, of 16 different entities." 

"I pointed out to him we have significant cyber capability, and he knows it. He doesn't know exactly what it is, but it's significant. If, in fact, they violate these basic norms, we will respond. He knows, in the cyber world. Number two, I think that the last thing he wants now is a Cold War," the US president said.

Biden said the two also spoke of releasing imprisoned US businessmen currently being held in Moscow in that same context. He said he told Putin he had to "change the dynamic," if he wanted US businesses to invest in Russia. He also noted, "It's in our interest to see the Russian people do well." 

"All foreign policy is a logical extension of personal relationships. It's the way human nature functions. And understand, when you run a country that does not abide by international norms — and yet you need those international norms to be somehow managed so you can participate in the benefits that flow from that — it hurts you," Biden said.

Seeking to illustrate the situation, Biden asked: "What would it be like if we engaged in activities that he's engaged in? It diminishes the standing of a country that is desperately trying to make sure it maintains its standing as a major world power."

Asked why he was confident that Putin and Russia would change their behavior after meeting him, Biden indignantly retorted that he wasn't. "What will change their behavior is if the rest of the world reacts and it diminishes their standing in the world."

Biden also summarized the significance of his entire European trip by emphasizing: "Over this last week, I believe, I hope, that the United States has shown the world that we are back, standing with our allies. We rallied our fellow democracies to make concerted commitments to take on the biggest challenges our world faces. And now, we have established a clear basis on how we intend to deal with Russia and the US-Russia relationship. There's lots more work ahead. I'm not suggesting any of this is done. We've gotten a lot of business done on this trip." 

What did observers say about the talks?

US Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Chris Kupchan told DW the two leaders were "not coming in looking for a bromance like Trump and Putin," but Biden could "invest in some kind of working relationship with Putin."

"Biden is much more worried about China than he is about Russia. And I'm guessing that Putin is growing quietly uncomfortable with China. So part of this conversation might be about trying to improve the Western relationship with Russia in a way that contains China's leverage and gives Moscow a little bit of breathing room in its relationship with Beijing," he said.

Andrey Kortunov, director-general of the Kremlin-founded Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), said Putin "understands that relations between Russia and the United States will continue to be mostly adversarial, at least for the foreseeable future. But at the same time, there are some potential pockets of cooperation that can be pursued further. And even the confrontation can and should be managed, to reduce costs and to cut down the risks."

David O'Sullivan, former EU ambassador to the US, said Biden would aim to be charming, and at the same time "open but firm on the points which are important for him."

"He will reach out to Putin and say, 'look, we don't agree on everything. Let's find a way of coexisting and not creating excessive tensions for each other.'"

jsi, js,nm/sms (AFP, Reuters, AP)