The last time President Biden met Russian President Vladimir Putin, he says he told the Russian leader he didn’t believe he had a soul.
That exchange was just one of the reasons the meeting between the two men in Geneva on Wednesday was so highly anticipated.
The summit — the final engagement on Biden’s weeklong trip to Europe — came amid tensions around Ukraine, the treatment of Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny, recent cyberattacks and allegations of election meddling.
Here are the five main takeaways.
A return to pragmatism
The White House was careful to downplay expectations for the summit, stressing there were no “deliverables” or major breakthroughs expected.
So it proved. Biden instead sought to frame the meeting as an exercise in worldly pragmatism.
In a news conference afterward, he stressed the importance of “strategic stability.”
By that, he seemed to mean that there should be a workable degree of predictability regarding what Washington or Moscow might do in various scenarios — and an awareness of the red lines for each nation.
On cybersecurity, he asserted that any attacks orchestrated by Russia would be met by a meaningful — if vaguely described — response from the United States.
Biden made clear he and Putin weren’t miraculously going to fall into lockstep. Rather, he held out the possibility that the Russian leader could burnish his country’s reputation over time by staying within international norms.
“This is not a ‘Kumbaya’ moment … but it’s clearly not in anybody’s interest — your country or mine — for us to be in a situation where we’re in a new cold war,” Biden added.
Such statements aren’t exactly exciting. But they show Biden trying to walk a fine line.
He knows his political and media opponents at home are eager to brand him as weak in his dealings with Putin, so some tonal toughness is required. At the same time, if Biden had contrived a dramatic blowup, it would have raised new questions about why the U.S. had issued the invite to the summit in the first place.
In the end, the event met modest expectations.
Putin, for his part, struck a similar tone.
“What’s the point of keeping score?” he said at his own press conference, which preceded Biden’s. “It makes no sense to try to scare one another.”
Capitol riot rears its head
The most contentious subject from the two leaders’ dueling news conferences was an unexpected one — the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Putin raised the issue in response to a question about human rights in Russia. It’s a hot topic in general, particularly amid criticism of the Kremlin’s treatment of Navalny.
Putin reacted in characteristic fashion, drawing attention to U.S. abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the continued existence of the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay.
But he then drew the insurrection into the same broad argument, saying mildly that “people came to the U.S. Capitol with political demands.” The law enforcement response, he suggested, had been too harsh.
This view — which replicates the talking points of the most fervent supporters of former President Trump — irked Biden when it was put to him at his news conference.
The president said any comparison of Jan. 6 with legitimate protest was “ridiculous.”
The Jan. 6 rioters, he added, were “literally criminals” who had broken through a security cordon to assail the Capitol.
Biden praised as 'not Trump'
Biden had one big advantage going into Wednesday’s summit — the low bar set by his predecessor.
When Trump met Putin in Helsinki in 2018, the U.S. president was widely criticized for a craven performance. Trump infamously appeared to take Putin’s word over the testimony of U.S. intelligence agencies about whether Russia had meddled in the 2016 presidential election.
The late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) branded Trump’s behavior at that meeting “disgraceful.”
Biden has sought to reassure U.S. allies over the past week that “America is back” — a clear allusion to the disruption and frequent chaos of the Trump years.
Much of the commentary that initially followed Wednesday’s summit measured Biden’s performance against that of his predecessor.
For the most part, Biden earned positive reviews simply by staying within the standard parameters. In doing so, he offered a contrast to Trump’s seeming delight in trampling on every line.
Putin relishes occasion
Putin’s desire to flex Russian muscle on the world stage is well known.
The Russian president — a KGB agent at the time the Soviet Union crumbled — is sensitive to any diminution of his country’s importance.
Criticisms of Biden’s decision to propose the summit centered on the idea that the event was sure to elevate Putin.
The Russian president certainly seemed to relish the spotlight. His lengthy press conference was mostly relaxed and even, on occasion, jocular. While he complained about American double-standards on issues like human rights, he was at pains to point out that the atmosphere at his meeting with Biden had been constructive.
“There was no hostility, quite the contrary,” he said. On several occasions, he praised Biden’s experience.
Putin’s clear enjoyment of the event irked some observers. One critic, the former chess champion Garry Kasparov, complained on MSNBC that Putin had “got what he wanted” simply by virtue of the summit taking place.
Questions linger about details
The summit provided some positive mood music for Biden and Putin, but it is unclear whether it presages any real change.
An extension of the New START arms reduction treaty had already been agreed in advance of the summit. Putin said the two nations had agreed that their ambassadors, who had been recalled to their home countries this spring, would return to their posts soon.
Afterward, the White House issued a statement noting that the two nations “will embark together on an integrated bilateral Strategic Stability Dialogue in the near future that will be deliberate and robust.”
The proposal is nebulous, and it could be undone at a moment’s notice by anything that raises frictions, such as new cyberattacks.
This, in turn, explains Biden’s positive but cautious tone.
Asked at his news conference whether he trusted Putin, the president pushed back against the terms of the question.