The summit between the president of the United States, Joe Biden, and that of Russia, Vladimir Putin, began this Wednesday at noon in Geneva (Switzerland) with great expectation, many more misgivings, and an agenda that is a field of mines. A bilateral meeting between the old enemies of the Cold War always carries its dose of tension, but when their leaders have known each other for so long, they have come to accuse each other of being murderers and having no soul – Biden to Putin – the uncertainty reaches another category. The relationship between the two countries is also going through its worst moment since the fall of the USSR, amid an escalation of sanctions and expulsions of diplomats as a result of electoral interference by the Kremlin, cyberattacks and the repression of opponents in Russia, with the arrest of Alexei Navalni as a symbol.
The harshness of the agenda contrasts with the spectacular scenery, an 18th century mansion on a green hill overlooking Lake Geneva. Around the idyllic setting, Switzerland has deployed more than 4,000 police and military personnel. The city, especially the center and the surroundings of the Villa La Grange, name of the mansion, they are armored.
Putin, who usually likes to keep himself waiting, has arrived first for the appointment, conspicuously punctual, followed by Biden. Around one-thirty in the afternoon, both leaders greeted each other before the host, Swiss President Guy Parmelin, who received them at the entrance. “It is always better to meet face to face,” said the North American. The Russian, who thanked his counterpart for the initiative of the summit, has indicated that he expects the day to be “productive.”
The meeting, in which Putin has ignored a reporter’s question about whether he fears the opposition Navalni, who is serving two years and eight months in a Russian prison for a controversial case, has started with a little chaos when reporters, cameras and photographers are they have crowded to enter the room where the initial greetings have been celebrated creating a tumult and a chorus of shouts that both leaders have observed from within. The first round of talks, in one of the libraries, includes the foreign ministers, the American Antony Blinken and the Russian Sergei Lavrov.
Biden arrived in Geneva on Tuesday night, the last stop on a European trip, while Putin, who usually avoids spending nights out, flew in from Moscow this morning, returning at the end of the day, on his first international trip since the pandemic started. The White House and the Kremlin advanced that they were scheduled between four and five hours of meeting, after which each will give a separate press conference before the journalists of their respective delegations.
Geneva has been the scene of crucial appointments between Washington and Moscow. In November 1985, in the closing stages of the Cold War, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the former USSR, met there. In the first phase of the conflict, in 1955, Dwight Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev were mentioned in it, within the so-called summit of the Big Four (together with France and the United Kingdom).
But the discussion will not turn this time so much about nuclear warheads, as it did 70 years ago, but rather about a new era of hostilities: cybersecurity. The infiltration and siege of government computer equipment, on the one hand; and the delinquency of groups that hijack company data and ask for millionaire figures as ransom, on the other.
Washington accuses Moscow not only of the great election interference operation of 2016, but also of penetrating the bowels of the US Administration, such as the computers of the Treasury Department, as happened with the Solarwinds case last spring. As for high-profile cyberattacks such as the one that forced the stop of the great Colonial pipeline on the East Coast, one of the largest energy arteries in the United States, Biden does not establish ties with the Kremlin, but he does believe that these groups operate from Russia and that, therefore Putin should help stop them.
It is the first meeting between the leaders of these two countries since the one held in the summer of 2018 by Putin and then-President Donald Trump, who left the United States – and half the world – speechless by the cordiality shown by the American given the serious allegations of interference they dealt with; Although that harmony did not translate into real changes or a reduction in sanctions against Russia.
For Putin, the summit is also important for domestic politics. He reappears as a player on the global geopolitical board after more than a low-profile year, with very few personal meetings and no travel outside of Russia, according to the Kremlin. Although there are no results after the summit, its celebration already gives Putin points, according to Russian analysts. With popularity declining, the numbers of covid-19 in Russia increasingly high despite the fact that vaccination has been available since January, and social discontent on the rise due to the limping economic situation, how to ‘sell’ the results of Wednesday’s summit may be a boost for the September parliamentary elections, to which United Russia, the party supported by the Kremlin, arrives with low scores.
Inside of Villa La Grange, Swiss officials have prepared everything to the millimeter: the temperature of the room where the Russian and American delegates will converse with the presidents, with wooden floors, carpets and thick golden curtains, will be set at 18 degrees Celsius, a requirement of the United States, according to Russian television; This Wednesday it’s 30 degrees in Geneva. On the work table, with a white tablecloth, circular containers of disinfectant. In Putin’s designated bathroom – with a sign on the door with the Russian flag and the words VIP – a colorless, odorless bottle of hand sanitizer.