Biden, Putin to hold first summit in Geneva

©Agence France-Presse

US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet June 16 in Geneva

Washington (AFP) - US President Joe Biden and Russian leader Vladimir Putin will hold their first summit next month in Geneva, both sides said Tuesday, though no breakthrough is expected in the fraught relationship.

The meeting in the wealthy Swiss city -- home to many UN organizations and location of a historic 1985 summit between Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and US president Ronald Reagan -- will be on June 16.

"The leaders will discuss the full range of pressing issues, as we seek to restore predictability and stability to the US-Russia relationship," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.

The Kremlin confirmed the summit details and said in a statement that Putin and Biden would be discussing "issues of strategic stability," as well as "resolving regional conflicts" and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Biden, making his first international trip as president, will go to Geneva immediately after separate summits with his key Western allies in the G7, NATO and the European Union.

The face-to-face meeting with the Kremlin leader comes amid levels of tension not seen for years, with Washington now dialling back its ambitions to little more than establishing a relationship in which both sides understand each other and can work together in specific areas.

Unlike in 2009, when Biden was vice president and then president Barack Obama's administration declared a diplomatic "reset" with Putin's government, expectations going into the summit this time are far lower.

A high-profile encounter will suit Putin at a time when he faces a largely hostile West, but Biden's decision to meet should not be taken as a mark of approval, say White House officials.

"We don't regard the meeting with the Russian president as a reward," Psaki said.

Since taking office, Biden has imposed new sanctions against Moscow over what US authorities say was the Russian role in the massive Solar Winds cyber attack and repeated meddling in the 2020 presidential election.

In addition, Washington has harshly criticized Moscow for the near-death poisoning and subsequent imprisonment of one of the last open opponents to Putin, Alexei Navalny. 

Tensions are also high over Ukraine, where Russia already controls swaths of territory and recently massed troops on the border in a new show of force.

Yet another focus is on Russian-dominated Belarus, which caused an uproar this week after authorities forced an airliner passing overhead to land, then arrested an opponent to President Alexander Lukashenko who had been aboard.

And where Biden told an interviewer that he agreed with the description of Putin as a "killer," the Russian government has formally declared the United States to be an "unfriendly" country.

Moves to ease tension

The open recriminations are a long way from the often puzzling relationship between Putin and Biden's predecessor Donald Trump.

The Geneva summit will come almost three years after Trump famously sided with the Kremlin leader over the US intelligence agencies on the question of whether Moscow interfered in the 2016 US presidential election.

However, both sides are working to calm the waters ahead of the Geneva summit, with the White House emphasizing hopes for working alongside Russia on well-defined strategic issues like nuclear weapons control and the Iran nuclear negotiations.

To prepare the ground, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and veteran Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met last week in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said after the Blinken-Lavrov meeting that repairing ties "will not be easy" but he saw "a positive signal."

Moscow welcomed a US decision to waive sanctions that had been holding up completion of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline -- a major energy supply route from Russia to Europe that US officials worry will make the EU overdependent on the Russians.

Officials say that given the worrying state of US-Russian relations, little change is likely any time soon. This leaves Washington with only the option of clarifying where each side stands at the presidential level, thereby hoping to prevent more dangerous escalations.

"This is how diplomacy works. We don't meet with people only when we agree," Psaki said.

"The president of the United States is not afraid to stand up to our adversaries and use a moment of in-person diplomacy to convey areas where he has concern and look for areas of opportunity to work together," she said.

"We're not suggesting that at the end of this, that it's going to be easy breezy from here.