If Joe Biden presses Russian President Vladimir Putin on his record of handling political opponents, the U.S. president should be prepared for a debate about the Jan. 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill.
Asked recently if he ever ordered the assassination of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Putin told NBC News that he had not, before quickly pivoting to the death of Capitol rioter Ashli Babbitt, a shooting by the Capitol Police that was found to be justified as she attempted to gain entry to the Speakers Lobby as part of the mob supporting then-President Donald Trump.
“We don’t have this kind of habit, of assassinating anybody. That’s one. No. 2 is I want to ask you: Did you order the assassination of the woman who walked into the Congress and who was shot and killed by a policeman?” Putin said. “Do you know that 450 individuals were arrested after entering the Congress? And they didn’t go there to steal a laptop. They came with political demands.”
Of course, expressing political opposition to an oligarch and disrupting the process of counting Electoral College votes after your preferred candidate lost a free election are not the same thing.
But it underscores what Biden, with his decades of foreign policy experience as a senator, vice president and president surely already knows about the challenges of dealing with the Russian leader in their summit Wednesday afternoon in Geneva. The U.S. president arrived in Switzerland on Tuesday afternoon.
“I’m hoping that — that President Putin concludes that there is some interest, in terms of his own interests, in changing the perception that the world has of him, in terms of whether or not he will engage in behavior that’s more consistent with what is considered to be appropriate behavior for a head of state,” Biden told reporters in Brussels on Monday night after a NATO summit.
The White House purposefully scheduled the meeting with Putin for the end of a roughly weeklong trip to Europe so that the president and others in the administration could first consult with America’s allies at the G-7 meetings in England, and then both NATO and the European Union in Brussels.
A senior administration official outlined the expected schedule for Wednesday, saying Biden was set to arrive at the meeting venue after Putin, who is scheduled to show up at 1 p.m. local time. The two men would have a meeting with Swiss Confederation President Guy Parmelin, with a brief media availability where only Parmelin is expected to make remarks.
The main bilateral event with Biden and Putin could run four or five hours, according to the senior administration official. The official, who spoke with reporters aboard Air Force One, said the U.S. intended to bring up human rights, but it was not clear if that would specifically include Navalny’s status. He remains in prison after recovering from being poisoned.
Biden was asked during Monday’s news conference at NATO what it would mean if Navalny were to die.
“Navalny’s death would be another indication that Russia has little or no intention of abiding by basic fundamental human rights. It would be a tragedy,” said Biden. “It would do nothing but hurt his relationships with the rest of the world, in my view, and with me.”
In response to criticism that he was meeting with his Russian counterpart perhaps too soon, Biden said he heard no such “reluctance” from U.S. allies.
A day ahead of the summit with Putin, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., praised Biden’s work on the European trip so far, rather predictably contrasting it with foreign trips by Trump.
“From the occupation in Crimea, to violating political and human rights within his own borders, to interfering in democratic elections across the Western world, to imprisoning those that expose his brutal, undemocratic regime, Vladimir Putin has spent the past decade interfering and destabilizing the world order,” Schumer said Tuesday on the Senate floor.
“In the history of our country, Americans had never seen a president of the United States support an adversary the way Trump supported President Putin on that stage in Helsinki nearly three years ago,” Schumer said, referring to the Trump-Putin bilateral meeting in Finland in 2018. “We all remember President Trump standing next to Vladimir Putin and taking the word of a Russian intelligence officer over America’s intelligence agencies.”
From the Biden administration’s standpoint, the agenda is also expected to include the future of the New START arms reduction treaty, which has been extended until February 2026, as well as recent ransomware attacks that are believed to have originated from Russian actors.