If folks were expecting diplomatic decorum for the first meeting between the U.S. and Russian presidents, they were sorely disappointed – aside from a cordial greeting by Switzerland’s president, Guy Parmelin. Instead, Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin, along with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, watched the mayhem ensue as Russian security attempted to push the press pool from the room.
As turbulent as the overture to the talks might have been, however, the more evocative aspect of the discussions for Americans was the Putin press conference that went on for over 45 minutes. The former KGB head was able to turn the events of the summit into a win for Russia. During the Fox News program Outnumbered, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a key point regarding the Russian leader’s responses to questions. He said:
“He is a trained KGB officer for sure. It also highlighted how important it would have been to have President Biden standing there beside him. Because some of the things he said there are fundamentally false. He doesn’t reflect the reality of the world and how he speaks. He’s a trained propagandist, and you didn’t have an American president standing there saying, ‘wait a minute, that’s not right.’”
Putin’s response to a question regarding Russia’s military activities in the Arctic serves as a prime example. The Russian leader took the opportunity to tutor the press on everything about the Arctic, from Law of the Sea implications to protecting Russia to the meaning of regulations governing Russia’s coastal sovereignty.
During the Q&A period, whether intentional or not, Putin skillfully got his major themes across:
- The talks between President Biden and himself were constructive.
- For every criticism of Russia regarding human rights abuses, he can point out similar if not more egregious examples in the U.S.
- The two global powers must agree on strategic nuclear weapons, and the U.S. obviously feels the same since it offered to extend the New START treaty talks for five years.
- There is a moral equivalence between the Russian worldview and the U.S. and how it reacts domestically and geopolitically.
When asked about political dissent in Russia, Putin raised the January 6 disorder at the U.S. Capitol, turning the narrative to create a moral equivalence between Russia putting down dissidents and the Capitol Police reaction to the crowd. Again, Pompeo suggested:
“He was allowed to go up there and spout Russian propaganda to create the context for moral equivalence between the United States and Russia on every front; whether he’s talking about BLM or protestors or our judicial system, and he talked about his protestors. But when we have a problem, it goes to court; we have a system of constitutional foundation. They have none of that.”
The strategic information value for Putin setting the stage, by going first with his press gathering and describing the talks and his interpretation of reality, cannot be underestimated. Having the two presidents standing side-by-side with the two flags in the background would have created the impression this was a summit of equals. Putin going first and having the undivided attention of the press and the American television viewing audience clearly captured the summit debrief high ground.
President Biden held his press conference last and had the opportunity to play catchup addressing the Russian president’s answers to the media questions. Biden took the podium and opened with:
“I know there was a lot of hype around the meeting. But it’s pretty straightforward – the meeting. One, there is no substitute for face-to-face dialogue between leaders. President Putin and I share a unique responsibility to manage the relationship between two powerful and proud countries. A relationship that has to be stable and predictable. And we should be able to cooperate where it’s in our mutual interest. And where we have differences, I wanted President Putin to understand why I say what I say and why I do what I do.”
Biden explained that he was at the summit to achieve three specific objectives. They were:
- Identify areas of practical work the two countries can do to advance mutual interests and also benefit the world.
- Communicate directly that the United States will respond to actions that impair its vital interests or those of its allies.
- To clearly lay out U.S. priorities and values so that Putin heard it straight from Biden.
The president went on to say that he explained to Putin that human rights are dear and fundamental to who Americans are and then lapsed into classic Bidenesque, saying: “We are uniquely a product of an idea. You’ve heard me say this before, again and again. I’m going to keep saying it. What’s that idea? We don’t derive our rights from the government. We possess them because we are born, period. And we yield them to a government.”
Biden raised the issue of Alexei Navalny, a dissident being held in a Russian prison for speaking out against the Putin regime. The president said the U.S. objects to such treatment because that’s “what we are. That’s who we are. The idea is we hold these truths self-evident, that all men and women. We haven’t lived up to completing, but we’ve widened the arc of commitment and included more and more people.”
One of the key issues Biden raised was strategic stability and the steps necessary to decrease the “risk” for unintended conflict. The result was an agreement to “launch a bilateral strategic dialogue.” That would entail bringing together military and diplomatic experts from both sides to work on means of controlling new and dangerous weapons, “coming on the scene now.”
Another important issue Biden said that he raised with Putin was the importance of protecting against cyberattacks of critical infrastructure, and he claims they agree that such attacks should be “off-limits.” This critical infrastructure includes energy and “our water systems.”
According to Biden, agreement on crucial issues included ensuring that Iran does not get nuclear weapons. How that would be achieved was not mentioned. But, to his credit, the president told his Russian counterpart that the U.S. was dedicated to the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, a primary concern for Europe.
Biden, however, could not resist reverting to progressive talking points when asked about the comparison made by Putin between Russian dissidents and groups like Black Lives Matter and crowds breaking into the Capitol. Biden responded:
“That’s a ridiculous comparison. It’s one thing for literally criminals to break through a cordon, go into the Capitol and kill a police officer be held unaccountable than it is for people marching on the Capitol and saying, you are not allowing me to speak freely. Or you are not allowing me to do A, B, C, or D. So, they are very different criteria.”
To be clear, sadly and most regrettably, a Capitol Police officer, Brian Sicknick, died a day after angry protestors broke into the U.S. Capitol building. Still, officer Sicknick died of natural causes, according to the chief medical examiner for Washington, D.C. He was not killed.
When it comes to evaluating the impact of the talks, the most accurate assessment of the Russia-U.S. summit was probably President Biden saying, “What is going to happen next is that we are going to be able to look back and look ahead and in three to six months and say did the things that we agreed to sit down and try to work out did it work?” In other words, we’ll have to wait and see.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
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