Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin hadn’t even sat down before tensions boiled over at the 18th-century Villa La Grange, a fine Swiss manor house besieged on Wednesday by a 21st-century press pool. The two men looked cordial enough as they shook hands for the first time as leaders. But the sun-struck journalists behind them pushed and shouted, some knocked to the floor, as they fought to get in to the leaders’ only joint appearance of the day.
“The media scuffle was the most chaotic your pooler has seen at a presidential event in nine years,” wrote a US reporter from inside the melee, which erupted as the press pack tried to follow the two leaders into the villa. “Russian security yelled at journalists to get out and began pushing journalists. Journalists and White House officials screamed back that the Russian security should stop touching us.”
The conflict felt tribal, as did the allegiances. “Of course the Americans can’t do without a scandal,” scoffed one Russian state news journalist as she filmed the battle from a distance.
It was a rare moment of chaos in a carefully curated Geneva summit that intentionally left little to chance. For Biden, the summit was designed as the anti-Helsinki, a chance to show that he would not be taken advantage of by Putin like Donald Trump had in Finland in 2018. That meeting went so poorly that Fiona Hill, a former Trump adviser, said she considered faking a medical emergency or pulling a fire alarm to end the press conference.
On Wednesday, Biden did not share a stage with Putin after the talks, with the two men holding separate press conferences (Biden said it was to avoid on-stage theatrics). Their press pools were corralled separately for much of the day to avoid awkward questions, and Putin’s arrival was set before Biden’s to prevent the Russian leader from making the US president wait.
Meanwhile, the streets and waterways of Geneva were patrolled by soldiers in camouflage to ensure security and the absence of protests, the Parc la Grange wreathed in barbed wire days before the summit. By the time that Biden and Putin rode in their motorcades down the lakeside Quai de Cologny, the waterfront resembled a Fortress Geneva, both host and hostage to a summit that could only take place in a small roster of European cities.
It went about as well as it could have. Speaking after the four-hour talks, Putin praised Biden’s “moral values” and called the talks “extremely constructive”, while calling their relationship a “pragmatic one”.
He still peppered his remarks with claims that the US was funding his opposition and appeared to sympathise with the Capitol Hill rioters (Biden called it “ridiculous” to compare them to Russia’s opposition). But there was hope, however ephemeral, for progress. “There is no happiness in life, only glimmers of it. Cherish them,” Putin said, paraphrasing Tolstoy. He looked rather upbeat.
Biden, who spoke second, said he believed that Putin “was not looking for a cold war”. “It was important to meet in person. I did what I came to do,” said Biden. He claimed that he had threatened Putin with retaliation if 16 kinds of critical infrastructure were targeted with cyber-attacks, but said the conversation was “not hyperbolic”. “There’s been too much of that going on,” he added, saying that within the next six months to a year, “we’ll find out … whether we have a strategic dialogue that matters”.
The meeting took place inside a book-lined library, where Putin and Biden, the fifth American president the Russian leader has met since 2000, shared stock phrases with muted expressions, speaking the language of diplomacy but hardly one of affection.
“Many questions have accumulated in Russian-American relations that require discussion at the highest level and I hope our meeting will be productive,” said Putin in a masterclass of understatement, as Biden nodded along.
“Thank you. It’s always better to meet face to face,” Biden responded. He called both countries “great powers”, something that the Russian president, who apparently bristled when Barack Obama called his country a regional power, would very likely appreciate.
This was Putin’s first time venturing out of Russia since last year, facing criticism of sheltering in a “bunker” as he forced anyone wishing to see him two weeks quarantine in a Russian hotel. Shortly after dawn on Wednesday, journalists in Putin’s pool queued outside the Mandarin Oriental hotel for express PCR tests administered by Kremlin doctors flown in from Moscow.
Across a bridge pro-democracy activists hung a banner bearing an image of jailed politician Alexei Navalny. Swiss police in a skiff removed it in less than five minutes, fishing the banner from the waters beneath the Pont de la Coulouvrenière and spiriting it away.
In truth, Putin had little besides coronavirus to fear in his first meeting with Biden as president. The Russian leader has maintained a dialogue with the US despite his invasion of Ukraine, the novichok poisonings in Salisbury and of Navalny, his alleged interference in the 2016 US presidential elections and his backing for Belarusian autocrat Alexander Lukashenko. Topics that raised his anger, like the potential for Nato accession for Ukraine, he appeared to simply ignore. “There’s nothing to discuss,” he said.
It was Biden who had to exorcise the ghost of Helsinki, facing down Putin and showing he had restored balance to the United States’ foreign policy, just as he had sought to reassure allies in the UK and Brussels during his 10-day European tour.
“Over this last week, I believe the United States has shown the world that we are back with our allies,” said Biden. “We rallied our fellow democracies to make concerted commitments to take on the biggest challenges our world faces, and now we’ve established a clear basis on how we intend to deal with Russia and the US-Russian relationship.”