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President Joe Biden said he focused on human rights and obtaining a stable relationship with Russia during the highest-stakes talks of his long career ended Wednesday in Geneva with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Biden started off his post-summit news conference emphasizing his focus on human rights during the meeting. Earlier, Putin said he had not detected any hostility between the two men. The summit ended with a modest agreement to return each country's ambassador to their post, an expected resolution to a summit that tested Biden's decades of experience on the world stage.
"I told President Putin my agenda is not against Russia or anyone else, it's for the American people," Biden said.
He added, "I made it clear to President Putin that we'll continue to raise issues of fundamental human rights because that's who we are."
Speaking during an hour-long news conference just before Biden's own news conference, Putin called the talks "constructive" and said he came away with a generally positive impression of the American leader.
"He's a balanced and professional man, and it's clear that he's very experienced," Putin said. "It seems to me that we did speak the same language."
Still, he offered no signs of altering malign behavior that has tested the West's ability and willingness to respond. And he did not alter his rhetoric, decrying the opposition leader Alexey Navalny and denying Russia's roles in cyber-attacks.
Instead, he described a frank and pragmatic three hours that had not led to a deep or emotional connection.
"It certainly doesn't imply that we looked into each other's eyes and found a soul or swore eternal friendship," he said.
The summit between Biden and Putin clocked in at just over three hours, and was broken into two rounds: the first a smaller session and the second with larger delegations. The total run time came in shorter than the four to five hours officials initially predicted for the summit.
Biden said he accomplished his goal of communicating his desire to have a stable and predictable relationship with the Kremlin.
"I told President Putin that we need to have some basic rules of the road that we all abide by," Biden told reporters.
Biden and Putin take center stage
Talks began earlier in the day inside a book-lined study, where each leader wore a serious expression as they delivered perfunctory opening remarks. Biden and Putin spoke through translators and didn't seem to look at each other directly.
Biden said he was seeking a "predictable and rational" relationship with Russia, and made reference to the US and Russia as "two great powers," a notable elevation of Moscow's status on the world stage.
"I think it's always better to meet face to face, try to determine where we have mutual interest, cooperate," Biden said. For his part, Putin thanked Biden for "the initiative to meet" as the pair sat down ahead of their first meeting.
"I know you've been on a long journey and have a lot of work," Putin said. "Russia and US relations have a lot of issues accumulated that require the highest-level meeting and I hope that our meeting will be productive."
When a reporter asked Biden if he trusted Putin, he seemed to nod -- though his communications director later said the President was not nodding in response to any particular question.
The leaders arrived -- Putin first, then Biden -- at the summit site on the shores of Lake Geneva in their motorcades shortly after 1 p.m. local time on a hot day in the Swiss city that has previously seen major talks between US and Russian leaders.
The two Presidents stood outside the Villa la Grange with the Swiss President, who made short remarks welcoming the two leaders. They then shook hands and entered the 18th century French-style manor home for their first round of meetings.
Biden arrived to the villa bolstered by support from western allies he spent the past week consulting ahead of his face-to-face with the Russian President, who arrived in Geneva Wednesday morning ahead of the summit.
In Biden's telling, those leaders all backed him in his decision to meet Putin now, in the first six months of his presidency, before he's had a chance to fully formulate a Russia strategy.
Meeting face to face
The Villa la Grange was a hive of activity in anticipation of the most closely watched meeting of Biden's young presidency. Security was tight, and the building itself has been spruced up with flowers, flags and a red carpet. Two of the windows are open to let a breeze inside, and most of the pale green shutters were open -- except for a room on the upper left-hand side, where all the shutters were closed and white screens were obscuring the glass on the front door.
It's the kind of scene Biden had been itching for after he grew tired of pandemic-forced virtual meetings and phone calls. Biden wanted the benefit of seeing Putin in the flesh, in their first in-person meeting since 2011. Biden has recounted during that meeting he told Putin, inches from his face, that he didn't believe he had a soul (Putin said in an interview this week he doesn't remember hearing that).
There are some areas Biden thought he could work in harmony with Putin, including cooperation on nuclear arms, climate change and shared interest in renewing the Iran nuclear deal.
But the areas of dispute far outnumbered the areas of agreement, and the bulk of the session is expected to focus on the myriad ways Biden believes Russia is violating international rules.
That includes a recent spate of ransomware attacks cutting across sectors in the United States, launched by criminal syndicates based in Russia. Biden also plans to raise human rights, as Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny remains imprisoned.
Biden said he told his Russian counterpart that certain areas of "critical infrastructure" should be off-limits for cyberattacks.
He said he outlined 16 specific entities that are defined as critical infrastructure, including energy and water, that both sides should agree are out of bounds for cyberwar.
"The principle is one thing, it has to be backed up by practice," Biden said. "Responsible countries need to take action against criminals who conduct ransomware activities on their territory."
Biden said he raised interference in US elections, warning the US will respond.
"I made it clear that we will not tolerate attempts to violate our democratic sovereignty or destabilize our democratic elections and we would respond," he said.
He said they also agreed on areas of mutual cooperation, including strategic stability, saying they discussed in detail the next steps on arms control measures. The group also agreed to launch a "bilateral strategy stability dialogue" amongst military experts and diplomats.
Looking for predictability
Officials say Biden's approach, which he's outlined broadly, will largely mirror his overall tact with Russia up to this point -- one defined by careful calibration and intentional balance. There's no indication, at least publicly, that the approach has led to any shift in Putin's behavior.
But Biden's decision to seek areas of opportunity to work together -- the two countries agreed on an extension of the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty in the opening weeks after Biden's inauguration -- while also moving to slap sanctions on Russia has outlined the rough model he'll pursue in the meeting itself, officials say.
Even with the sanctions, Biden made a point of calling Putin in advance to let him know they were coming. That tracks with a deliberate effort Biden has sought to create space for further areas of cooperation as they seek to lay down guardrails for the relationship.
It has plenty of critics -- including, two US officials say, within Biden's own administration. But it also served to lay the groundwork for the critical meeting with Putin himself. And it underscores why Biden, who aides say much prefers face-to-face meetings, decided to move forward with the summit idea in the first place.
Ahead of time, both US and Russian officials said they expected talks to stretch at least five hours. They were broken up into sections: the first with only the leaders and their respective top diplomats, and a second that expands into delegations of five officials apiece.
When the meeting expanded, US officials in the meeting included Secretary of State Antony Blinken; national security adviser Jake Sullivan; Victoria Nuland, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, the National Security Council's top Russia adviser Eric Green; and John Sullivan, the US ambassador to Russia who departed Moscow in April amid raised tensions.
This is a breaking story and will be updated.