“There were no threats, just simple assertions made,” President Joe Biden said Wednesday in Geneva when asked if he made any threats to Russia during the bilateral summit with President Vladimir Putin.
“I looked at him; I said how would you feel if ransomware took on the pipelines from your oil fields? He said it would matter,” Biden said. “This is not about just our self-interest; it’s about a mutual self-interest.”
Cybersecurity challenges and recent ransomware attacks originating from Russia against U.S. infrastructure were a significant topic of conversation for the U.S. side during Wednesday’s summit, which ran roughly three hours.
“I pointed out to him we have significant cyber capability, and he knows it. He doesn’t know exactly what it is, but it’s significant, and if in fact they violate these basic norms, we will respond,” Biden said.
The meeting yielded one clear deliverable: Putin said that ambassadors would be returning to their posts in Washington and in Moscow, but beyond that it seemed the two presidents of nuclear superpowers agreed to have their administrations engage in further discussions, including on what comes next for arms reduction with the New START Treaty that is currently extended until early 2026.
“I did what I came to do: No. 1, identify areas of practical work our two countries can do to advance our mutual interest and also benefit the world,” Biden said. “Two: Communicate directly, directly, that the United States will respond to actions that impair our vital interests or those of our allies. And three: to clearly lay out our country’s priorities and our values.”
Biden said he did not think Putin was seeking another Cold War with the United States and that the two sides would be trying to set up working groups on key policy challenges.
“I’m not sitting here saying because the president and I agreed we’re going to do these things, that all of a sudden it’s going to work. I’m not saying that,” Biden said. “What I’m saying is I think there’s a genuine prospect to significantly improve relations between our two countries without us giving up a single, solitary thing based on principle and our values.”
During his own news conference, Putin, as is typical, rejected the notion that his government was responsible for imprisoning and killing political opponents and quelling dissent. Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, was just the latest such dissident to be poisoned and has been imprisoned.
“America just recently had very severe events after well-known events, after the killing of an African-American,” Putin said through a translator, apparently referring to the protests in response to George Floyd being murdered by a police officer last year. “An entire movement developed known as Black Lives Matter.”
Putin basically argued that was the kind of free speech protest that Russia wanted to avoid, saying, “We don’t want that to happen on our territory. We’re doing our utmost in order to not allow it to happen.”
Biden laughed when asked about Putin’s seeking to compare dissenters in his country to Black Lives Matter protesters, as well as the Jan. 6 insurrectionists who attempted to disrupt the counting of Electoral College votes and Biden’s victory over former President Donald Trump.
Biden said he told the Russians that such comparisons were “ridiculous.”
“It’s one thing for literally criminals to break through a cordon, go into the Capitol, kill a police officer,” Biden said.
The summit, which took place on neutral turf in Switzerland, got off to a rough start when Russian security tussled with the international press pool, but it featured some of the traditional set pieces of such meetings, including the presentation of gifts.
Biden gave his Russian counterpart two gifts, including a pair of custom aviator sunglasses, something of a Biden trademark. The other gift was a crystal American bison sculpture, according to a White House official.
The summit came at the U.S. president’s final stop on a weeklong European tour that included meetings with allies from the G-7, NATO and the European Union, and it was clear that Biden relished the opportunity for in-person diplomacy with both friends and adversaries of the United States.
“Look guys, I know we make foreign policy out to be this great, great skill that somehow is sort of like a secret code,” he said. “All foreign policy is, is a logical extension of personal relationships. It’s the way human nature functions.”
Back in the U.S., which Biden departed for after his news conference, such diplomacy was getting a domestic test, as senior White House aides met with a group of senators to find a way forward on an infrastructure plan that forms the basis of the president’s policy agenda.