Joe Biden held his first meeting as president with Russian leader Vladimir Putin Wednesday in a get-together that seems to have gone surprisingly well.
During a three-hour sit-down at a summit in Geneva, the world leaders apparently had a far-ranging conversation in which they discussed human rights, cybersecurity, and how to move forward while pursuing “mutual interests.”
Given the events of the past few years, one could’ve imagined it would be hard to find that kind of common ground—and that Wednesday’s conversation would’ve been hellishly awkward. Just to review: The previous U.S. president was widely accused of basically being a sleeper agent for the Russian government—a bad actor in an apparent plot to bring down our democracy. Said government was also accused of having meddled in American elections (twice!). There have also been ongoing reports from the U.S. intelligence community of disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks emanating from within the Kremlin (or, at least, from inside Russia’s borders)—the likes of which include the widespread SolarWinds espionage campaign that apparently compromised dozens of U.S. companies and numerous federal agencies.
And yet somehow things went pretty smoothly on Wednesday.
“The tone of the entire meeting was good, positive,” Biden said in a press conference following the meeting, and Putin seemed to agree.
“There has been no hostility,” the Russian president said at his own press event. “On the contrary, our meeting took place in a constructive spirit.”
Biden even apparently gave Putin some presents. The Washington Post reports the president gifted the Russian autocrat with a pair of his beloved aviators, as well as a crystal statue of an American bison. Weird!
Odd gifts aside, Wednesday wasn’t without its frictions—though they mostly came during Biden’s post-meeting press appearance during which he fielded questions from a cadre of confused journalists. Reporters seemed to want to know why, after four years of railing against Trump’s cozy relationship with the Kremlin and decrying Russia as a threat to American democracy, No. 46 seems to now want to kick things off with such a chummy, conciliatory attitude. One Associated Press reporter put it this way:
AP REPORTER: “U.S. intelligence has said that Russia tried to interfere in the last two presidential elections and that Russian groups are behind hacks like SolarWinds and some of the ransomware attacks you just mentioned. Putin, in his press conference just now, accepted no responsibility for any misbehavior. Your predecessor opted not to demand that Putin stop these disruptions. So what is something concrete, sir, that you achieved today to prevent that from happening again?
Biden didn’t really have a great answer for that, offering that—unlike with Trump—Putin knows that “there are consequences,” he said. “He knows I will take action.”
The two leaders apparently discussed some potential strategies for cybersecurity moving forward—though the details weren’t immediately apparent. “I talked about the proposition that certain critical infrastructure should be off limits to attack, period. By cyber or any other means,” said Biden, explaining that he had presented Putin with a list of the 16 sectors deemed “critical infrastructure” by the U.S. Those included “telecommunications, healthcare, food and energy,” and others.
“Principle has to be backed up by practice,” Biden offered at one point. “Responsible countries need to take action against criminals who conduct ransomware activities on their territory,” he said, while remaining vague on the specifics of what that “action” would be.
Unless we want to live out the rest of our days in subterranean fallout shelters, it behooves our country to maintain good ties with other nuclear powers—so it’s not a bad thing that U.S.-Russian relations stay solid. That doesn’t make Biden’s folksy “shrug emoji” re: Putin not somewhat funny given just how much shit Joe’s talked in the lead-up to this moment.
In March, Biden called Putin a “killer” who will “pay a price” for his meddling in American democracy, ostensibly referring to ongoing cyberattacks and the alleged Russian interference in recent presidential elections. On the campaign trail, he was even more vociferous, leaning heavily on claims that his rival, Trump, was “cozy” with the Kremlin and implying that—by contrast—he would play hardball with the Russian leader when he reached the White House.
Granted, all of the allegations about Putin’s corruption and ill repute are true, though the ballooning of Russia’s significance into some sort of global puppet-master capable of manipulating U.S. domestic politics and threatening to take over the world, are not. Serious analysts take issue with the interpretation of Russia as an ambitious conquerer, with some claiming many of the country’s actions are more defensive against Western aggression than outwardly provocative of it.
That doesn’t mean the image of Russia as a global bogeyman hasn’t been immensely profitable for politicians in America. For the past few years, Democrats have essentially used Putin and Russia writ large as a political foil to the values of the West, to liberal democracy, and to the Democratic Party. By inflating the stumbling petro-state-in-decline into a fiery geopolitical adversary—and aligning their political enemies somewhat cartoonishly with it (Trump, many members of the GOP and others)—they effectively scared the bejeezus out of many of their constituents, enough to get themselves elected (or re-elected) and to keep the political donations flowing. Conversely, Trump and the GOP have been just daft and craven enough to take the accusations of Putinism as some sort of weird compliment, laundering them into a bizarrely successful brand of sex appeal with their machismo-hungry, rightwing base.
Of course, now that Biden is in office, he clearly believes that reconciliation with a nuked-up oligarchy is probably better than a continued war of words and outward belligerence—a reality that Putin has likely understood and counted on all along. As much as we might have cultural or ethical qualms with one another, political stability and a lack of global hellfire are goals Washington and Moscow can both agree on.