GENEVA — President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin concluded their summit on Wednesday with an agreement to return their nations' ambassadors to their posts in Washington and Moscow and a plan to begin work toward replacing the last remaining treaty between the two countries limiting nuclear weapons.
But the two leaders offered starkly different views on difficult simmering issues including cyber and ransomware attacks originating from Russia.
Putin insisted anew that his country has nothing to do with such attacks, despite U.S. intelligence that indicates otherwise. Biden, meanwhile, said that 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."
Will Putin change his behavior? Biden was asked at a post-summit news conference.
"I said what will change their behavior is if the rest of the world reacts" in a way that "diminishes their standing in the world," Biden said. "I'm not confident of anything. I'm just stating a fact."
Both leaders, who have stirred escalating tension since Biden took office in January, suggested that while an enormous chasm between the two nations remains the talks were constructive.
Putin said there was "no hostility" during three hours of talks, a session that wrapped up more quickly than expected.
When it was over, Putin had first crack at describing the results at a solo news conference, with Biden following soon after. Biden said they spent a "great deal of time" discussing cybersecurity and he believed Putin understood the U.S. position.
"I pointed out to him, we have significant cyber capability," Biden said. "In fact, (if) they violate basic norms, we will respond. ... I think that the last thing he wants now is a Cold War."
Putin noted that Biden raised human rights issues with him, including the fate of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Putin defended Navalny's prison sentence and deflected repeated questions about mistreatment of Russian opposition leaders by highlighting U.S. domestic turmoil, including the Black Lives Matter protests and the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
Putin held forth for nearly an hour before international reporters. While showing defiance at queries about Biden pressing him on human rights, he also expressed respect for Biden as an experienced political leader.
The Russian noted that Biden repeated wise advice his mother had given him and also spoke about his family — messaging that Putin said might not have been entirely relevant to their summit but demonstrated Biden's "moral values." Though he raised doubt that the U.S.-Russia relationship could soon return to a measure of equilibrium of years past, Putin suggested that Biden was someone he could work with.
"The meeting was actually very efficient," Putin said. "It was substantive, it was specific. It was aimed at achieving results, and one of them was pushing back the frontiers of trust."
Putin said he and Biden agreed to begin negotiations on nuclear talks to potentially replace the New START treaty limiting nuclear weapons after it expires in 2026.
Washington broke off talks with Moscow in 2014 in response to Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea and its military intervention in support of separatists in eastern Ukraine. Talks resumed in 2017 but gained little traction and failed to produce an agreement on extending the New START treaty during the Trump administration.
The Russian president said there was an agreement between the leaders to return their ambassadors to their respective postings. Both countries had pulled back their top envoys to Washington and Moscow as relations chilled in recent months.
The meeting in a book-lined room had a somewhat awkward beginning — both men appeared to avoid looking directly at each other during a brief and chaotic photo opportunity before a scrum of jostling reporters.
Biden nodded when a reporter asked if Putin could be trusted, but the White House quickly sent out a tweet insisting that the president was "very clearly not responding to any one question, but nodding in acknowledgment to the press generally."
Their body language, at least in their brief moments together in front of the press, was not exceptionally warm.
The two leaders did shake hands — Biden extended his hand first and smiled at the stoic Russian leader — after Swiss President Guy Parmelin welcomed them to Switzerland for the summit. When they were in front of the cameras a few minutes later — this time inside the grand lakeside mansion where the summit was held — they seemed to avoid eye contact.