Biden aides lower expectations ahead of Putin summit

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The White House on Tuesday lowered expectations as President Biden arrived in Geneva, Switzerland, for his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin — with a senior Biden administration official telling reporters they are “not expecting a big set of deliverables” from the Wednesday talks.

Biden’s own tone changed ahead of the meeting when he downplayed past descriptions of Putin as a “killer” who has “no soul” and told reporters Monday at the NATO summit in Belgium that Putin actually is a “worthy adversary” who is “bright” and “tough.”

White House officials for weeks said Biden will seek to forge a new understanding with Putin that would allow for a more predictable US-Russia relationship. And Putin aides told reporters they still believe there may be a joint statement.

Biden and Putin are expected to arrive at the meeting site in Geneva around 1 p.m. local time Wednesday. The senior US official said meetings could last four to five hours, but that there will be “no breaking of bread.”

Then Putin, followed by Biden, are expected to give solo press conferences, the official said. The lack of a joint press conference will allow Biden to avoid embarrassing moments that make him appear weak or hypocritical. Putin aides suggested he will advocate for the “human rights” of Capitol rioters during the summit.

The senior US official said “nothing is off the table” for the talks, which are expected to include discussion of recent cyberattacks against Colonial Pipeline and JBS Foods by criminals suspected of living in Russia.

Biden has struggled during press interactions on his first foreign trip, which also included stops in the UK and Belgium, with lengthy pauses and saying he must stop talking lest he “get in trouble” with his press handlers.

The Geneva summit is expected to kick off with an initial meeting between Biden and Putin. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and translators also will be in the room, the senior US official said.

There’s scheduled to be a brief press availability when Biden and Putin first sit down — though on Monday, the White House scrapped a similar “pool spray” at the start of Biden’s meeting with Turkish autocrat Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leaving frustrated US reporters dependent on Turkey’s government for information.

Biden in April offered Putin the summit during a call in which he informed him of US plans to expel diplomats and apply new sanctions as punishment for alleged Russian meddling in the 2020 election and the SolarWinds hack that impacted US government systems. Russia reciprocated by expelling US diplomats.

Lavrov said ahead of the talks that Putin is prepared to flip the script on Biden if he brings up sensitive issues, such as human rights including the case of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who last year survived poisoning attempts.

“We will be ready to answer the questions that the American side will raise. This also applies to human rights,” Lavrov said. “For example, we are following with interest the persecution of those persons who are accused of the riots on January 6 this year.”

Biden already has lightened his approach toward Putin on several occasions.

As a presidential candidate, Biden repeatedly attacked President Donald Trump for not punishing Putin over unconfirmed intelligence that Russia paid bounties to the Taliban to kill US troops in Afghanistan. But Biden has been quiet on the issue since US spy agencies concluded in April they don’t have high confidence in the claim.

And Biden appeared to blink in April on a decision to send warships to the Black Sea in response to a Russian troop buildup on the borders of Ukraine. The Pentagon ordered a U-turn by two US destroyers.

The Biden administration last month also decided to waive sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline linking Russia to Germany, which the Trump administration feared would make US allies economically dependent on Russia.

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