Biden and Putin kick off high-stakes summit in Geneva

President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin shook hands on Wednesday outside the 18th century Swiss villa that will play host to their highly anticipated summit meeting in Geneva — locking eyes and appearing to exchange brief pleasantries before embarking on the most high-stakes diplomatic encounter of Biden’s young presidency.

Biden and Putin flanked Swiss President Guy Parmelin at the front door of the historic Villa La Grange as Parmelin introduced the two leaders, who remained stone-faced before greeting one another and stepping inside the massive estate situated on the banks of Lake Geneva.

Biden and Putin were seen again minutes later, seated beside their respective countries’ top diplomats inside what appeared to be a vast library within the villa. Their remarks were difficult to make out over the din of assembled journalists, but Putin — joined by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov — thanked Biden “for the initiative to meet today” and said he hoped their meeting “will be productive.”

Biden, sitting next to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, thanked Putin and responded: “As I said outside, I think it’s always better to meet face-to-face.” The four men were mostly expressionless throughout the chaotic photo opportunity, although Biden did crack a smile as reporters jostled for better positions among the press pool.

Biden arrived for the summit on Wednesday at the conclusion of his first trip overseas while in office, a weeklong tour of Western Europe that saw the president meet with American allies in the G-7, NATO and European Union.

The White House has said those meetings between Biden and fellow world leaders — during which the new president sought to reaffirm U.S. engagement on the world stage — will allow him to enter his Putin summit with “the wind at his back” after having strengthened relationships with democratic governments around the globe.

Biden and Putin have spoken over the phone twice prior to their summit on Wednesday: once in January in their first conversation as foreign counterparts and again in April, when Biden suggested the idea of a summit.

At Putin’s most recent one-on-one summit with an American president — in July 2018 in Helsinki, Finland — former President Donald Trump infamously sided with the Russian leader over the U.S. intelligence community on the issue of Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election.

Biden and Putin are likely to address a broad array of urgent issues that define the U.S.-Russia relationship at the outset of Biden’s term, among them: Russian efforts to interfere in U.S. elections, a recent spate of ransomware cyberattacks with ties to Russia and a buildup of Russian troops on Ukraine’s border.

Other potential topics of discussion include arms control and the extension of the New START nuclear nonproliferation treaty, Moscow’s SolarWinds espionage operation and the possible return of U.S. diplomats to Russia and vice versa.

The two leaders may also debate Moscow’s detainment of American citizens, including two former Marines, as well as human rights issues in Russia — specifically the fate of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

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