The U.S.-Russia summit has always been an unscripted drama. Push-and-pull wars of nerves and verbal battles are more often the subjects of the talks and often determine their success or failure. At the 1961 Vienna summit, taken aback by Nikita Khrushchev’s threatening remarks, John F. Kennedy was seen as a weak leader. Looking down on him, Khrushchev drove the Cuban missile crisis the following year. The meeting between President Joe Biden and President Vladimir Putin in Geneva on Wednesday was no exception.
Putin, who is generally late to such summits, surprisingly appeared 15 minutes early. His odd specialty has been to dampen the spirits of other countries’ leaders in the early stages by always being more than 30 minutes late. Putin’s early appearance at the talks seems to be the result of Biden’s tough stance. Biden had once called Putin a “killer” and said that he has “no soul.”
Reluctant to share the same platform with Putin, Biden opted for individual press conferences rather than a joint one. At the Helsinki summit three years ago, Donald Trump responded with a “back-and-forth delay” as well, and the talks began 70 minutes late. Trump was also criticized by the public for providing Putin with an opportunity to make excuses through a joint conference.
Putin, who has been in power for over 20 years, had his prowess draw attention again this time. When asked if there was growing trust and happiness between him and Biden, he quoted the great writer Leo Tolstoy. “There is no happiness in life, only a mirage of it on the horizon, so cherish that.” Tolstoy had shared this wisdom with Ivan Bunin, a 23-year-old literary man who had visited him on a cold night — to not expect too much from life. Putin’s words, which drew more attention due to mistranslation, implied a glimmer of hope that “there is no trust, but there is a mirage.”
The U.S.-Russia relationship is at its worst since the Cold War. The U.S. has imposed dozens of economic sanctions over election intervention, human rights abuses and the annexation of Crimea, and ambassadors from both countries have been recalled. While the Russian media hailed the talks as a “handshake of the superpowers,” there were sarcastic comments on U.S. social media, saying, “economic power worse than Canada” and “still mistaken for the Cold War era.” In the United States, Putin’s credibility is 81% negative, and in Russia, the biggest enemy is the United States (66%), so public opinion is even worse than diplomacy. In such an atmosphere, the talks were limited to listing differences of opinion, but if there is any achievement to this summit, it’s the affirmation of each other’s not-to-be-crossed red lines.