GENEVA — U.S. President Joe Biden and Russia’s Vladimir Putin exchanged cordial words and plotted modest steps on arms control and diplomacy but emerged from their much-anticipated Swiss summit Wednesday largely where they started — with deep differences on human rights, cyberattacks, election interference and more.
The two leaders reached an important, but hardly relationship-changing agreement to return their chief diplomats to Moscow and Washington after they were called home as the relationship deteriorated in recent months. And Biden and Putin agreed to start working on a plan to solidify their countries’ last remaining treaty limiting nuclear weapons.
But their three hours of talks on the shores of Lake Geneva left both men standing firmly in the same positions they had started in.
“I’m not confident he’ll change his behavior,” Biden said at a post-summit news conference, when he was asked about what evidence he saw that former KGB agent Putin would adjust his ways and actions. “What will change his behavior is the rest of the world reacts to them, and they diminish their standing in the world. I’m not confident in anything.”
Both the White House and Kremlin had set low expectations going into the summit. They issued an joint statement after the conclusion that said their meeting showed the “practical work our two countries can do to advance our mutual interests and also benefit the world.”
But over and over, Biden defaulted to “we’ll find out” when assessing whether their discussions about nuclear power, cybersecurity and other thorny issues will pay off.
Back-to-back news conferences by Biden and Putin after the summit also put in stark relief that getting at the root of tensions between the U.S. and Russia will remain an enormously difficult task— including when the two sides, at least in public comments, sketched dramatically different realities on cyber matters.
Biden came into the summit pushing Putin to clamp down on the surge of Russian-originated cybersecurity and ransomware attacks that have targeted businesses and government agencies in the U.S. and around the globe. But when the summit ended, it wasn’t evident that more than superficial progress had been made.
Biden said he made clear to Putin that if Russia crossed certain red lines — including going after major American infrastructure — his administration would respond and “the consequences of that would be devastating,”
Putin, in turn, continued to insist Russia had nothing to do with cyber intrusions despite U.S. intelligence evidence that indicates otherwise.
“Most of the cyberattacks in the world are carried out from the cyber realm of the United States,” said Putin, also adding Canada, two Latin American countries he didn’t name and Britain to the list.
While the U.S., Canada and Britain all engage in cyberespionage, the most damaging cyberattacks on record have come either from state-backed Russian hackers or Russian-speaking ransomware criminals who operate with impunity in Russia and allied nations.