"Leo Tolstoy once said: in life there is no happiness, only the specter of it – let’s appreciate it. It seems to me that in such a situation there can be no family trust. But this specter seems to have appeared," Vladimir Putin sums up the main tone of the meeting with Joe Biden. He gives a separate press conference immediately after the summit with his American counterpart, which lasted about 4.5 hours. Biden takes over with a briefing about half an hour after Putin. And stresses: "This is not a ‘kumbaya’ moment […] like, ‘Let’s hug and love each other.’ But it’s clearly not in anybody’s interest — your country’s or mine — for us to be in a situation where we’re in a new Cold War."
The Cold War is the hardest thing to consider these days in Geneva. The city is in the midst of a heatwave – the promised more than 30 degrees Celsius fully explains why the American side on the eve of the talks demanded to fix the air conditioning system in the historic Villa La Grange of the 18th century, where the talks took place. At last, both delegations announced the first steps towards a productive dialogue following the summit, and the representatives of both sides are satisfied with the talks. But from further words of the leaders, it is already clear: in most issues, the two agreed to disagree.
If on the eve of the meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who also came to the talks, said that "it takes two to tango", it seems that Biden and Putin have just begun to agree on common rules for this tango. It would be easier to talk only about strategic stability, for which a joint statement was even adopted. But on the issue of protection of human rights, Belarus, Alexei Navalny, Donbas and regional conflicts, Russia and the United States still do not have a common trajectory.
Undoubtedly, this was a historic meeting – Biden and Putin met for the first time as presidents - even if it was not a sensational breakthrough in the rather cold recent relations between Russia and the United States. While Geneva was being watched by the whole world, we in Geneva were watching the Putin-Biden summit. And now it’s time to share exclusive impressions and consider the significance of this event.
Villa La Grange is the site of talks between Biden and Putin on June 15, 2021. Photo: Kolyan Pastyko / hromadske
Rage near Villa La Grange
The luxurious La Grange Park, where usually in midsummer people flock to admire the roses in the rosary, at this time simply is unrecognizable. More than a week ahead of the meeting, it was closed to visitors, and on the eve of the summit, there was an additional fence and barbed wire around the perimeter. From the morning of June 16, all approaches to the villa are completely closed to cars – except for the convoys of delegations. All public transport in the area of the villa is blocked, and from the taxi stop for another 10 minutes you have to walk to the press center, located just across the road from La Grange.
This press center, one of two that has been set up for media people from all over the world, is our closest observation point for the villa. From behind the fence, at least, one can see the arrival of the processions of Biden and Putin (who, by the way, miraculously arrived on time!). In this regard, almost all of the 500 journalists accredited to the meeting are more or less on equal terms: almost no one manages to get behind the scenes of the summit.
"We actually have a big tent here, which was built in just a few weeks. And it can accommodate about 300 journalists. All seats outside for live broadcast with the villa as the background are booked in advance. There are only 38 of them, and the demand was much higher. I don't know how many countries the journalists came from, but I would be very surprised to learn that there are countries from which the media did not come to the summit," said Liz Corbin, a spokeswoman for the European Broadcasting Union, which was responsible for media coverage of the summit.
The entrance to Villa La Grange is also visible from afar, but one can't see the leaders shaking hands on the porch – even despite Biden's recent statements that he considers Putin a killer.
Well, except for a small number of Russian and American journalists who were allowed into the park, they succeeded – they were the first to hear the initial statements of the presidents. At the beginning of the meeting in the old library of the estate, Putin thanked Biden for the initiative to meet. It came in April this year amid a build-up of Russian troops near Ukraine's borders and in Crimea and an expected further escalation. Biden’s press secretary Jen Psaki said before the meeting that he wanted to determine "the full range of pressing issues, as we seek to restore predictability and stability to the U.S.-Russia relationship."
At this stage, an altercation broke out between Russian and American journalists: some accused others of deliberately blocking the passage to the library for protocol filming. It was the only chance to get inside the villa: the next 4.5 hours of negotiations were held behind closed doors.
A security official asks the media to leave the area where negotiations between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin are taking place, June 16, 2021. Photo: AP / Denis Balibouse
Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken with translators took part in the narrow-format talks. Other representatives of delegations joined later. Biden was joined by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Deputy Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland. Putin, among others, is accompanied by his press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, and the deputy head of the presidential administration and the “Ukraine policy curator” in the Kremlin, Dmitry Kozak. Certain conclusions from the topics for discussion could be drawn from this.
Russian and US ambassadors Anatoly Antonov and John Sullivan, who were recalled in April after the United States imposed a new package of anti-Russian sanctions, also joined. In fact, their future fate was determined at the summit: they may soon return to work in Washington and Moscow, respectively, the parties to the talks ruled. In fact, this is one of the few productive steps that Biden and Putin managed to agree on. Well, other than agreeing on the position on nuclear disarmament and praising the mutual decision to extend the START III treaty on strategic offensive weapons for five years. And deciding to join forces to fight the coronavirus.
As for the pandemic: the meeting took place with strict quarantine restrictions. The Russian delegation, part of which arrived in Geneva on the eve of the summit, was forced to take a coronavirus test because the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, which all members of the delegation probably received long ago, was not certified in the Schengen area, which includes Switzerland. When journalists asked Lavrov about the test results, he laughed in his characteristic manner: "The autopsy will show."
US President Joe Biden arrives in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 15, 2021, the day before the US-Russia summit. Photo: AP / Denis Balibouse
Joe Biden arrived in Geneva on the afternoon of June 15 from Brussels – to conclude his European tour, which featured a meeting with Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, participation in G7, NATO summits and the first US-EU summit in seven years. "The United States is back," Biden demonstrated one of his campaign slogans during a week-long trip to Europe. Thus he also wanted to "coordinate positions" before meeting with the Russian president.
Parallel universes of Geneva
Lake Geneva is clearly visible from the windows of the enormous, but rushed press center near Villa La Grange. When you go out into the yard to join the live broadcast against the background of the villa, you feel pleasant proximity to the water in the mad heat. The atmosphere in the press center, of course, bodes for proper work – everyone is anxiously waiting for the negotiations to end. But it is interesting to watch through the fence a completely different life on the shore of the pond: people sunbathing, swimming, and tasting ice cream.
"I would not say that the lives of Geneva residents have changed much. Except, of course, everything is a little different – with helicopters overhead and security preparations," Paula, a resident of Geneva, whom we met on the beach, shares her impressions with us. "There are no particular problems. The only thing is that certain restrictions apply to public transport: it does not stop at all stops and some buses have been canceled. But personally, I don't feel any discomfort," adds Eduardo, whom we briefly distract from sunbathing.
On the Mont Blanc Bridge, which requires crossing a river to reach a villa on the other side of the lake, Russian and US flags are reminiscent of the summit. So are the symbolic colors of the flags in the splashes of the Jet d’Eau fountain on Lake Geneva, one of the highest in the world. And somewhere in the parallel reality of Geneva, on the eve of the summit, a rally was held in support of Russian opposition prisoner Alexei Navalny. Putin's fate and case in the context of human rights protection were asked at least three times at a press conference after the summit. And each time he managed to answer evasively, without even mentioning Navalny's name. "This citizen" was how he was referred to.
Protest of Ukrainians living in Switzerland against Russian aggression in Ukraine, June 16, 2021. Photo: Ulyana Pereskotska / hromadske
Geneva is a very good place to remind people about human rights: it is home to the headquarters of many international organizations, including the European headquarters of the United Nations, the second most important after New York. When the summit began at Villa La Grange, Ukrainians also protested against Russian aggression in central Geneva. There are few of them in Geneva itself, but as we were told after the protest, many came from other cantons of the confederation for this occasion.
"It was important for us to show that we, Ukrainians, stand our ground, that Ukraine is indivisible within its recognized borders, that Crimea is Ukraine and will always be Ukraine, that Donbas is Ukraine, that Russia is and will always be an aggressor. In fact, we were joined by Georgians living in Geneva, and we talked about it together: Russia is an aggressor for Georgia, Moldova, Russia commits international crimes on the territory of our states," human rights activist and co-organizer of the action Olena Vynohradova explained. According to her, on the eve of the protest agreed with the city administration, they faced provocations: unknown people began to spread fakes that the action was illegal, and urged not to come to it. I had to once again explain the purpose of the action on social networks.
Human rights were the main topic of Biden's brief press conference, including his opening remarks. The main theme: the protection of the fundamental rights of every citizen is the basis of the American essence. "No President of the United States could keep faith with the American people if they did not speak out to defend our democratic values, to stand up for the universal rights and fundamental freedoms that all men and women have. I pointed out to him that that’s why we’re going to raise our concerns about cases like Alexei Navalny. we’ve always widened the arc of commitment and included more and more people. I told President Putin that we need to have some basic rules of the road that we can all abide by," Biden said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at a press conference after meeting with US President Joe Biden at Villa La Grange in Geneva, Switzerland, June 16, 2021. Photo: AP / Alexander Zemlianichenko
Culmination: exchange of positions
The talks in Geneva ended around 5:30 p.m. A presidential car appeared on the screens of the press center, where the broadcast could be seen from the courtyard of the villa: Biden got out of the villa, got in the car and went to the Intercontinental Hotel, where he had stopped the day before. Journalists fussed and aimed their cameras at the park's gates, hoping to film the American leader's departure. But Biden evidently left from the other side.
Putin and Biden's press conferences were the culmination of the long-awaited summit day. But whether the fatigue took its toll or whether the vast majority of American and Russian journalists were in close proximity to the presidents, our press center (at least according to our subjective observations) did not listen to the briefings very intently.
While Putin was answering questions about Biden's impressions, China, the Minsk agreements (for violation of which he blamed Ukraine), the alleged US-backed Russian opposition, and sanctions, journalists behind us watched the Turkey-Wales match with more enthusiasm. And, by the way, Putin also did not forget to mention the victory of the Russians in yesterday's game against the Finns during his speech.
President Joe Biden speaks at a press conference after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, Switzerland, June 16, 2021. Photo: AP / Patrick Semansky
Biden was watched with more interest. Probably because his press conference was frankly more lively. Interestingly, he called journalists who could ask questions on his own, forgot their names and positions (as he always does), joked, asked permission from the audience to take off his jacket and wear glasses because of the heat, even in the evening. Although Biden's press conference lasted only half an hour, he answered a number of questions in a much more substantive and detailed way than Putin. Among the important and expected statements from Biden are mentions of support for Ukraine and condemnation of the dictatorial regime of Lukashenko in Belarus.
"I communicated the United States’ unwavering commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. We agreed to pursue diplomacy related to the Minsk Agreement. And I shared our concerns about Belarus. He didn’t disagree with what happened; he just has a different perspective of what to do about it," said Biden.
Ukraine's membership in NATO was mentioned in passing, "there is nothing to discuss here," Putin said. Putin and Biden did not mention the issue of the completion of Nord Stream 2, which was also of great concern to Ukraine on the eve of the leaders' meeting. But this does not mean that this was not discussed at the summit.
The meeting between Biden and Putin was not a pivotal moment in relations between Russia and the United States, but without a doubt, the very fact that it went ahead was important. On the eve of the summit, the Biden administration stressed that it should not be taken as an encouragement to Russia in something (especially since the meeting was initiated by Biden) and as a kind of legitimization of violations of international law, which Russia resorts to. This is just the beginning of a dialogue between the new US administration and the incumbent Russian president, who officially confirmed this status thanks to last year's amendments to the constitution. Such are the first steps in tango, about which Lavrov said: "Because if someone break-dances at the same time, it is probably more difficult."
US President Joe Biden bids farewell on his way to the airport after his press conference at the end of the US-Russia summit in Geneva, Switzerland, June 16, 2021. Photo: AP / Peter Klaunzer
Can we talk about the emergence of at least some trust in relations between Russia and the United States? Biden advised not to rush to conclusions. "Look, this is not about trust; this is about self-interest and verification of self-interest," the American president stressed. Many journalists, however, were more interested in whether the two leaders managed to establish rapport. Biden's remarks after a meeting with Putin in 2011 that he looked into the Russian president’s eyes and saw no soul there were recalled, as well as recent statements that Biden considered Putin a killer.
"It is difficult to say whether it was possible to establish certain personal relationships. But the most important thing is that the president said to his counterpart that at this level they found time and could sit quietly in one room for several hours. They did not agree on everything: for example, when President Biden raised the issue of human rights or Americans serving time in Russian prisons, there were serious disagreements with Russia. They managed to exchange views. Then we will see what will become of it," Andrea Kalan, a spokeswoman for the US State Department, told us in a comment.
While we are working on this material, the press center near Villa La Grange quickly becomes deserted, and the streets, which were blocked all day, finally reopen. The main thing has already happened: the presidents have met and parted ways in the hope of at least some further understanding, which is important not only for Russia-US relations, but also for the stability of the entire world.
/With the support of Russian Language News Exchange