Biden, Putin hail positive talks, but US warns on cyberwar

Geneva, Switzerland | Thu, June 17, 2021 | 8.09 pm

At their first conference in Geneva on Wednesday, Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin attempted to defuse tensions in the tense US-Russian relationship, with the US president declaring that his Kremlin counterpart did not seek a new Cold War. After more than three hours of negotiations, including two hours alone with just the Russian foreign minister and the US secretary of state, the two leaders emerged cautiously optimistic. “The talk was completely positive,” Putin said reporters, adding that their ambassadors had agreed to return to their posts as a sign of diplomatic reconciliation.

The meeting, which took place in an exquisite mansion on the shores of Lake Geneva, was described by Biden as “excellent.” The US president, who was wrapping up a tough diplomatic tour of Europe, said he and Putin discussed cooperating on issues such as the Arctic, Iran, and Syria, where the two former superpower foes have common interests. Biden said during a press conference that the world’s two most powerful nuclear powers “have a special responsibility.”

Biden, on the other hand, issued a strong warning to the Kremlin against any cyberattacks on what he described as “16 clearly designated sections of US critical infrastructure.” “Those sections should be off limits,” he said, referring to the areas he didn’t make public. Violations, Biden warned, will result in a “cyber” response from the US. At the very least, Washington accuses Moscow of harboring cyber ransomware gangs and of carrying out the SolarWinds attacks on US firms.

Russian intelligence allegedly used dirty tricks to try to sabotage the last two presidential elections, according to US intelligence. But, in response to warnings that the world would witness a reprise of the Cold War of the twentieth century, when Washington and Moscow locked horns for decades before the Soviet Union fell apart, Biden said Putin knows his boundaries. “I believe a Cold War is the last thing he wants right now,” Biden remarked.

Diplomatic breakdown

Since Biden assumed office in January, diplomatic relations between Moscow and Washington had all but broken down. Following Biden’s comparison of Putin to a “killer,” Russia took the unusual action of recalling its ambassador, Anatoly Antonov, in March. John Sullivan, the US envoy, also returned to Washington.

Those fundamental schisms haven’t gone away. With the two leaders shaking hands for the cameras, the summit got off to a promising start. Putin, on the other hand, responded angrily to criticism of his human rights record and claims of harboring cyber criminals. Instead, he asserted that “the United States is the source of the world’s highest number of cyberattacks.” Putin has tried to deflect criticism of his treatment of opponents, claiming that the United States had more serious problems. During Putin’s tenure, several high-profile critics have been assassinated in Russia, and the media has been virtually silenced. Putin’s reasoning, according to Biden, is “nonsense.”

Respect

The prospect of a more understanding, if not necessarily favorable, US-Russian relationship went a long way toward achieving what Putin is rumored to be seeking: more respect on the international stage. Biden’s allusion to the US and Russia as “two great powers” was sure to satisfy Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has ruled his country for the past two decades, alarming the West with invasions of Ukraine and Georgia, as well as the often ruthless suppression of political dissent.

Biden’s Republican opponents in Washington labeled him naïve for believing that reaching out to Putin would persuade him to end Russia’s diplomatic isolation. “It’s plain to me that Putin couldn’t care less about how he’s perceived by others,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said, adding that Biden had “miscalculated.”

Cold War setting

The choice of Geneva harkened back to the 1985 Cold War summit in the Swiss city between US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The summit villa, which was surrounded by barbed wire, was heavily guarded. The lakefront was patrolled by grey patrol boats, while heavily armed, camouflaged troops stood guard at a neighboring yacht port.

In contrast to 1985, tensions today are focused on what the Biden administration regards as an increasingly rogue regime rather than strategic nuclear weapons and rival ideologies. Putin arrived at the summit claiming that Moscow is simply contesting US hegemony as part of a push to build a “multi-polar” world in which Russia has forged closer ties with the US’s undoubtedly more powerful opponent, China.

In a pre-summit interview with NBC News, he dismissed claims that he was involved in cyberattacks or the near-fatal poisoning of Alexei Navalny, one of his last remaining domestic opponents. The event marked the end of Biden’s first overseas tour as president. He came in Geneva after attending NATO and European Union summits in Brussels, as well as a G7 conference in the United Kingdom.

There was no joint press conference at the end of the summit, unlike when Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, met Putin in Helsinki in 2018. The US side plainly sought to avoid the optics of Biden sharing such a stage with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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