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Biden and Putin face off in Geneva amid elevated tensions

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Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Biden shook hands Wednesday as they met for a summit in Geneva — on the heels of provocative Russian war games near Hawaii and crippling Russian-based cyberattacks on US industries.

The talks are expected to last 4-5 hours at the historic Villa de la Grange manor house, situated within a stately park near the shore of Lake Geneva.

Most of the summit won’t be public and the leaders will give solo press conferences afterward — reducing the risk of Biden falling into a PR trap laid by the ex-KGB agent, who has ruled Russia for two decades.

Swiss President Guy Parmelin played host and convened an introductory photo-op outside the villa shortly after 1 pm local time — running on time despite Putin’s slight tardiness.

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When Putin and Biden sat down inside, they delivered their only scheduled joint remarks to the media — though most of those remarks were inaudible to reporters due to loud side-chatter from others in the room.

Joe Biden arrives at the Villa la Grange in a limo ahead of the summit.
President Joe Biden arrives at the Villa la Grange in a limo ahead of the summit.
AP Photo/Markus Schreiber
Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden shake hands ahead of the summit on June 16, 2021.
Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden shake hands ahead of the summit on June 16, 2021.
AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool

Putin thanked Biden through a translator for the invitation to meet. “The US and Russian relations have a lot of issues accumulated that require the highest level meeting, and I hope that our meeting will be productive,” Putin said.

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“As I said outside, I think it’s always better to meet face to face,” Biden responded, before the remainder of his words were drowned out by noise.

The inaudible remarks continued a series of press-access mishaps on Biden’s first foreign trip. On Monday, the White House scrapped a similar “pool spray” at the start of Biden’s meeting with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leaving frustrated US reporters dependent on Turkey’s government for information.

A reporter attempts to interview a worker vacuuming the red carpet in front of the venue where President Joe Biden will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin, Wednesday, June 16, 2021, in Geneva, Switzerland.
A reporter attempts to interview a worker vacuuming the red carpet in front of the venue where President Joe Biden will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 16, 2021, in Geneva.
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
An armored personnel carrier of the Swiss police blocks an entrance to Villa La Grange, the venue of today's summit between Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden.
An armored personnel carrier of the Swiss police blocks an entrance to Villa La Grange, the venue of today’s summit between Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The Putin summit features two meetings: a smaller one between Biden and Putin, joined by translators, Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and then a larger group meeting featuring additional officials.

White House officials sought to lower expectations on Tuesday, telling reporters aboard Air Force One that they are “not expecting a big set of deliverables.” Still, Russian officials said they believe the summit may produce a joint statement — after US officials for weeks said Biden will seek to forge a new understanding with Putin that would allow for a more predictable US-Russia relationship.

Biden’s tone changed ahead of the meeting when he downplayed past descriptions of Putin as a “killer” who has “no soul” and told reporters Monday at the NATO summit in Belgium that Putin actually is a “worthy adversary” who is “bright” and “tough.”

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Swiss President Guy Parmelin seen next to flags for Russia, Switzerland and the United States ahead of the summit.
Swiss President Guy Parmelin seen next to flags for Russia, Switzerland and the United States ahead of the summit.
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

The meeting closely follows the reported deployment of three F-22 raptors by US officials on Sunday in response to large Russian war games featuring ships, submarines and bomber aircraft about 300-500 miles off Hawaii.

The US jets did not intercept any Russian bombers because they didn’t get close enough to Hawaii during the maneuvers, which Russia called its largest Pacific exercise since the Cold War.

The war games were the latest in a series of Russian jabs at the US.

Reporters seen crowded around an area across the street from Villa La Grange.
Reporters seen crowded around an area across the street from Villa La Grange.
Leandre Duggan/Keystone via AP

The talks are expected to address recent cyberattacks against the Colonial Pipeline, which caused US gas prices to spike as stations ran dry across the South, and JBS Foods, a major meat processor, by criminals suspected of living in Russia.

Lavrov said that Putin is prepared to flip the script on Biden if he brings up sensitive issues, such as human rights including the case of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who last year survived poisoning attempts. He said Putin was ready to advocate, in turn, for the “human rights” of Capitol rioters.

“We are following with interest the persecution of those persons who are accused of the riots on January 6 this year,” Lavrov said.

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Swiss President Guy Parmelin welcomes U.S. President Joe Biden as he arrives at Villa La Grange.
Swiss President Guy Parmelin welcomes President Joe Biden as he arrives at Villa La Grange.
Denis Balibouse/Pool Photo via AP

Biden in April offered Putin the summit during a call regarding US plans to expel diplomats and apply new sanctions as punishment for alleged Russian meddling in the 2020 election and the SolarWinds hack that impacted US government systems. Russia reciprocated by expelling US diplomats.

But Biden has faced criticism for lightening his approach toward Putin on several occasions.

As a presidential candidate, Biden repeatedly attacked President Donald Trump for not punishing Putin over unconfirmed intelligence that Russia paid bounties to the Taliban to kill US troops in Afghanistan. But Biden has been quiet on the issue since US spy agencies concluded in April they don’t have high confidence in the claim.

The "Villa La Grange" is seen on June 16, 2021 in Geneva, Switzerland.
The Villa La Grange is seen on June 16, 2021, in Geneva.
SEBASTIEN BOZON/AFP via Getty Images

And Biden appeared to blink in April on a decision to send warships to the Black Sea in response to a Russian troop buildup on the borders of Ukraine. The Pentagon ordered a U-turn by two US destroyers.

The Biden administration last month also decided to waive sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline linking Russia to Germany, which the Trump administration feared would make US allies economically dependent on Russia.

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