The last time Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden met was after Biden made a quick 10-minute drive across central Moscow from the Ritz-Carlton hotel to attend a group meeting at Russia’s White House, overlooking a bend in the still icy Moskva River.
It was March 10, 2011. Biden was U.S. vice president. Putin was then Russia's prime minister.
“I would describe it as cordial,” said Michael McFaul, the architect of President Barack Obama’s Russia “reset” and later the ambassador to Moscow. “It wasn’t confrontational, but we spent a good chunk of time on things that we disagreed about, particularly on Georgia and missile defense. I remember some pretty sharp back-and-forth on those issues.”
Biden “is a gregarious guy. He’s physical, grabbing hands and elbows. He’s got a sense of humor,” McFaul told RFE/RL. “I don’t remember any of that with Putin. It was all ‘game face on, stick to the script.’”
After the group meeting, Putin and Biden had a one-on-one meeting behind closed doors. McFaul said he was not present. Later, Biden revealed what he told Putin.
“As I turned, I was this close to him,” Biden recounted in 2014, indicating they were just inches apart. “I said, ‘Mr. Prime Minister, I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.’
“And [Putin] looked back at me, and he smiled, and he said, ‘We understand one another,” Biden said.
Ten years and three months after that last encounter, Biden and Putin -- whose diminutive nickname is Volodya or Vova -- will meet again, this time in Geneva on June 16.
This time, both are presidents.
And this time, relations between Moscow and Washington are at their lowest ebb since the Cold War; things are so bad, neither country has an ambassador in the other country.
Don’t hold your breath for a major breakthrough.
"There will be a conversation in Geneva on the entire range of bilateral relations, regional affairs,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters in Moscow on June 8. He said he hoped "it will be possible to ensure at least the stabilization of relations with the United States."
“There are difficulties everywhere; nothing is easy,” Ryabkov said.
Russia has “no illusions” about the prospects for major progress, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said. “We don't try to give the impression that there will be a breakthrough or historic momentous decisions.”
As for Biden, he told U.S. military personnel on June 9 that he had a clear message for Putin.
“We're not seeking conflict with Russia," Biden said at a British air force base, his first stop on a multi-leg European trip that culminates in Geneva. "We want a stable and predictable relationship…. But I've been clear: The United States will respond in a robust and meaningful way if the Russian government engages in harmful activities."
Pipelines And Punishments
The dissonance of Russia policy under Biden’s predecessor -- with President Donald Trump making conciliatory remarks, even as his administration extended existing sanctions or imposed new ones -- has dissipated under Biden, who has pushed a comparatively harder line toward Moscow.
Since he took office in January, the Biden White House has hit Moscow with two new rounds of sanctions: one in response to U.S. intelligence findings that Russian agents were behind a massive cyberhack of U.S. government agencies, the other over the near-fatal poisoning of Russian opposition activist Aleksei Navalny, who was targeted with a powerful military-grade nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union.
The White House has sought to bolster relations with Ukraine, whose war with Russia-backed forces in the Donbas region is now in its eighth year. The White House sent Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Kyiv last month following a big show of military force by Moscow in the Donbas and Russian-held Crimea. Biden invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to visit this summer -- but rejected his pleas for a face-to-face meeting before the summit with Putin.
Still, the Biden administration has faced criticism for decisions some see as beneficial to Moscow.
A recent sanctions decision that paves the way for the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, bringing more Russian gas directly to Germany under the Baltic Sea and bypassing Ukraine, drew howls of criticism from congressional Republicans and some European allies.
And just days after being inaugurated, Biden moved to extend New START, the last major arms-control treaty remaining between Moscow and Washington.
Arms-control advocates hailed the five-year extension, which maintains caps on the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals. Some Republicans in Congress said it was pointless either because of persistent doubts about Russian compliance with other treaties or because of arguments that the treaty restrained U.S. efforts to modernize its own arsenal.
White House officials have also signaled low expectations for the Geneva meeting.
“I don’t think we’re setting this up to be a meeting where there’s going to be an outcome that resolves every issue or every challenge in our relationship,” spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on June 5.
Also paramount for U.S. officials is the recent spate of major cyberintrusions and ransomware attacks in the United States. U.S. intelligence has pinned blame for the SolarWinds attack, which penetrated dozens of U.S. government agencies, on Russian security agencies.
The ransomware attacks, which crippled a major fuel pipeline along the U.S. East Coast and a major U.S. beef producer, have also been linked to Russia.
“We do not judge that the Russian government has been behind these recent ransomware attacks, but we do judge that actors in Russia have,” White House national-security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on June 9. “And we believe that Russia can take and must take steps to deal with it."
'You Don’t Have To Like Or Respect The Russian Leadership To Talk To Them'
For Biden’s critics, the question is: What’s the point?
To answer that question, said Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute in Washington, D.C., it’s important to understand the nature of the Russian political system at present.
“This is a one-man show. Vladimir Putin runs the Russian state out of the Kremlin,” he said in a panel discussion on June 8.
Biden “is seeking to impose some guardrails on the destabilizing behavior from Moscow,” he said. “There’s no guarantee that’s possible, but it is guaranteed that…if the two leaders don’t talk to each other, you don’t have a chance to get to those guardrails.”
“You don’t have to like or respect the Russian leadership in order to talk to them,” Rojansky said.
Given the low expectations, McFaul said, the outcome will likely to be modest: an agreement to discuss further arms treaties, for example, or even just an agreement to return the two ambassadors to their two respective capitals, he said.
Other possibilities: agreement to extend a UN Security Council resolution allowing humanitarian aid into Syria, where Russia and the United States have been on opposite sides of the conflict, or on steps to renew the international deal on Iran’s nuclear program.
For Putin, as much as anything, it’s being seen on the world stage alongside a U.S. president that’s paramount, said Ivan Kurilla, a Russian political scientist and historian of U.S.-Russian relations.
“Certainly Putin wants to get back to being equal, a partner in a dialogue with the American president,” he told RFE/RL.
Kurilla said Putin also will resist any discussion of Crimea -- the Ukrainian peninsula was seized by Russia in 2014 -- or of Belarus, whose leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has turned even more authoritarian and dependent on Moscow.
“And, of course, Putin does not want to be lectured about human rights,” he added.
Putin himself emphasized that point in a video meeting with executives from foreign news agencies on June 4.
“You can evaluate our political system in different ways,” Putin told the editors. “Just give us the right, please, to determine for ourselves how to organize this part of our life.”
But with civil society and opposition groups like Navalny’s under immense pressure from the Russian authorities, the Biden White House is under pressure from both Democrats and Republicans to do more to support them and to criticize the Kremlin.
The meeting in Geneva comes a week after a Moscow court labeled Navalny’s organizations “extremist,” outlawing them and -- in conjunction with a law Putin signed five days earlier -- barring member and backers from running for any elected office.
Whether or not Biden presses Putin hard on human rights and democracy, observers say the summit isn’t likely to alter Moscow’s behavior at home or abroad.
Putin is “willing to use [the tools he has] to undermine the United States, to undermine democracies, to undermine the liberal international order,” McFaul said. “I just don't think he's going away.
“I think in some ways, it's after Geneva when the real work of a coherent, comprehensive strategy towards Russia has to be implemented,” he said.