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Three essential classes from the Biden-Putin summit

US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin met in Geneva on Wednesday for their first personal summit as relations between their two countries deteriorated to their lowest level in decades.

The meeting was viewed by both countries as an attempt to lay down ground rules to ease tension following a series of cyberattacks attributed to Russian hackers, sanctions over Moscow's alleged interference in the 2020 US presidential election and a diplomatic expulsion rally.

US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin met in Geneva on Wednesday for their first personal summit as relations between their two countries deteriorated to their lowest level in decades.

The meeting was viewed by both countries as an attempt to lay down ground rules to ease tension following a series of cyberattacks attributed to Russian hackers, sanctions over Moscow's alleged interference in the 2020 US presidential election and a diplomatic expulsion rally.

As a first important step, the two heads of state and government agreed to bring their respective ambassadors back to Washington and Moscow after they were both recalled for consultations earlier this year.

After nearly four hours of meetings, Biden and Putin held separate press conferences describing the summit as productive and outlining a limited range of areas for further discussion on cybersecurity and prisoner exchanges. In a joint communiqué released after the meeting, the two presidents reaffirmed their determination to avert nuclear war and announced plans to resume strategic stability talks in order to lay the groundwork for future arms control negotiations.

Here are a few of Foreign policy key findings from the Geneva meeting.

A radical departure from the Helsinki Summit

Biden's meeting with Putin came almost three years after the now infamous Helsinki, Finland summit, where then-US presidential party President Donald Trump said he believed Putin told his own secret services over alleged electoral interference. Trump's top adviser to Russia, Fiona Hill, later admitted she was considering setting off a fire alarm or faking a medical emergency just to end it.

"It's been a while since we had normal summits and normal engagements where you can read the text, listen to the interviews and understand it," said Andrey Baklitsky, an arms control expert with the Moscow think tank PIR Center.

The ghost of the Helsinki Summit and Putin's reputation for embarrassing his interlocutors likely influenced the decision to hold separate press conferences on Wednesday. Although there was not the same relapsing atmosphere, both leaders described the meetings as respectful and productive.

In his press conference, which took place an hour before Biden's press conference, Putin said that although he had not "sworn an eternal friendship" to his US colleague, he saw a "spark of hope" in his eyes. For his part, Biden described the summit as “good, positive” and said that although there was disagreement, it was not “held in a hyperbolic atmosphere”.

That doesn't mean it was just a smile. Biden warned of "devastating consequences" if the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny died in prison and warned the Russian leader of cyber attacks on critical infrastructures such as energy and water supplies in the USA.

Putin refused to name Navalny in response to repeated questions about human rights in Russia and instead raised the United States' own challenges over gun violence and the continued operation of the Guantánamo Bay detention center.

Putin “felt very comfortable. He was having a good time; he's been through all these whataboutisms, ”said Michael McFaul, who served as US ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration.

No breakthroughs, but potential for progress

As expected, there were no major breakthroughs in Geneva. However, both presidents identified a handful of key areas where there might be some potential for progress, beginning with an agreement to return their ambassadors to their respective posts. "If you want to accomplish something that is complicated with Russia or elsewhere, you need an embassy team with staff to deal with the matter and advise Washington on what is possible and what is not," said Dan Fried, who served as an assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.

Biden also brought up the issue of two Americans, Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed, who have received long sentences separately in Russia. Putin said the two countries may be able to "find a compromise there," noting that the US State Department and the Russian State Department would be working on the issue. Further conversations about the prisoner exchange could prove tricky as the prisoners disagree that each side wants to return. Although Washington believes the charges against Whelan and Reed are false, Russia is likely to request the release of notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout and convicted drug smuggler Konstantin Yaroshenko in return.

A short joint communiqué by the White House and the Kremlin following the summit reaffirmed a commitment made by the then USA in 1985 in Geneva. President Ronald Regan and the then President of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, stated that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be waged”.

Since there is only one arms control agreement between Russia and the United States, which together own around 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons, the communiqué also approved bilateral strategic stability talks that could pave the way for future arms control negotiations.

“I think it's good that they did that, that they got a joint statement. It's important, even if it was pretty thin, ”said McFaul.

We will see

It is still unclear what the two leaders discussed about the laundry list of other issues likely to have come up during the meeting, including climate change, the Arctic, Belarus, Syria and the ongoing war in Ukraine.

The story of whether or not the summit will be a success has yet to be written. "The hard work comes the day after the summit," said McFaul. Although the two leaders have identified some limited areas in which they may make progress, it is now up to their governments to work out the details amid ongoing tension and intense political scrutiny in Washington. Biden seemed to be very aware of this in his press conference when he said: "The proof of the pudding is in the food".

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