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Russia summit

Biden squares up to Putin

Before they had said a word to one another at the Villa La Grange in Geneva on Wednesday, Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin had given “a masterclass in non-verbal communication,” says Torsten Krauel in Die Welt. Biden brought the bigger motorcade – 38 vehicles to Putin’s 17 – but, unlike “the fit judoka and hockey player”, the 78-year-old US president had at least one ambulance in his. Yet it was Putin who looked “nervous” compared to the “cool” Biden. He arrived 15 minutes early and, in the official handshake, “stuck his arm out a lot further than the US president”.

It was always going to be tense, says Daniel DePetris in The Spectator: relations between the two countries are at their lowest ebb for 40 years. So why did Biden agree to meet Putin and give him “the international stardom he so lavishly craves”? Because no matter how “horrific” the Russian president’s behaviour, the White House can’t ignore him. The US and its Cold War rival are still in charge of nearly 90% of the world’s nuclear arsenal, and most of the agreements governing their use have expired in the past couple of years. It wouldn’t take much for the situation to “deteriorate rapidly”, so Biden needs to keep things sweet. “The West doesn’t have a magic wand it can wave over Putin.”

Biden did manage to “exorcise the ghost” of the Trump-Putin bromance, says Susan Glasser in The New Yorker. At a 2018 summit in Helsinki, President Trump alternately “praised” and “cowered to” his Russian counterpart. After more than three hours of talks, Biden’s announcement of more talks (on issues such as nuclear arms and cyberwarfare) may not have set the world on fire, but he didn’t give Putin any room to upstage or “taunt” him. The Russian president was left to dodge awkward press questions about human rights record by firing back about Black Lives Matter and paraphrasing Tolstoy: “There’s no happiness in life. There’s only a mirage on the horizon, so we’ll cherish that.”

Don’t get too excited, says Alexander Vindman in The New York Times. Putin got exactly what he wanted: “a public relations win”. Footage of him shaking hands with the US president will be replayed “ad nauseam” on Russian state TV. While Biden got nothing from the summit to make Americans safer or richer, the Russian premier was again “elevated to the world’s stage” in a face-off against the pre-eminent superpower.

The “modesty” of Biden’s ambition conveys a “realism” that has eluded previous presidents. But he has set up some clear “mission accomplished moments”, says Edward Luce in the FT – a live and kicking Alexei Navalny, the end of big cyberattacks on the US and a weakening of Russia and China’s “alliance of the aggrieved”. That said, his “constant gardening” approach to diplomacy will take years to bear fruit, and time is not on his side. America’s European allies are afraid he “may only be a one-term president”. Will he still be in office three and a half years from now? “Putin almost certainly will.”

🎁 Biden gave Putin a custom pair of Randolph aviator sunglasses (he wore his own pair to the press conference) and a crystal sculpture of an American bison. We don’t know what, if anything, Putin offered in return, but he surprised Donald Trump at their 2018 summit by pulling a football out of a bag during their press conference “to divert attention from questions on Syria”, says Politico. In 2009, then secretary of state Hillary Clinton presented her own odd gift to her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov: a big red button with the word “reset” on it. Unfortunately, “whoever made the button didn’t know their Russian”, says NPR. Instead of “reset”, it said “overloaded”.