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What can Biden and Putin hope to accomplish at their summit?

Biden prepares for high-stakes summit with Putin
Biden prepares for high-stakes summit with Putin 03:59

Moscow — Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin will face off in a historic summit on Wednesday as the U.S. and Russia grapple for ways to move the turbulent relationship between the two countries past antagonism. Both leaders already agree on one thing: The tension between the two global powers is as high as it has been in years, evidenced by a web of punitive sanctions against Russia, diplomatic expulsions and frequently repeated grievances over anti-democratic meddling and cyberattacks.

The Biden administration hopes merely to foster a more "stable and predictable relationship" with Russia. For Putin, the summit in Geneva will be all about demonstrating that his country is taken seriously as an international power.

"Perhaps the most important thing for Moscow is to make the relations pragmatic," Tatyana Stanovaya, a scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told CBS News. "What they are counting on is convincing Biden that our countries must learn to take into account the interests of each other and recognize certain privileges for one another."

Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine on the U.S.-Russia relationship 08:17

Both sides have downplayed expectations for the summit and said they expect no breakthroughs. The plan for the leaders to hold their own solo news conferences and issue only unilateral statements after the meeting — a stark difference from summits Putin has held with U.S. leaders since he took office in 2000 — is telling.

But while expectations are low, the stakes are certainly high.


A series of paralyzing cyberattacks on U.S. infrastructure, blamed by Washington on Russian hackers, may prove to be one of the most significant stumbling blocks for the leaders when the meet on Wednesday.

The most obvious recent examples being the attack that shut down the Colonial Pipeline, slashing the fuel supply to half of the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, and a breach of the world's largest meat company JBS, which drove up wholesale meat prices and disrupted supply chains.

Colonial Pipeline CEO defends paying nearly $5 million to Russian hackers 07:45

Mr. Biden accused Russia of being a haven for cybercriminals and said he would raise the issue of the ransomware attacks with Putin, who has dismissed the suggestion of Russian involvement as "nonsense."

Russia-based hacking groups largely avoid targeting assets within the country or its allies, and analysts believe that, in turn, Russia's special services turn a blind eye to their malign actions.

"I think Russia doesn't care much about being scolded for these attacks," Stanovaya, the analyst at the Carnegie center, told CBS News. "The fact that there is a lot of chaos, suspicion, and fear plays into Russia's hand as it wants to set some rules of the game."

Putin said this week that he would at least consider extraditing criminal hacking suspects to the U.S. — but only in the unlikely event that the U.S. commits to sending individuals wanted by Moscow on similar accusations to face prosecution in Russia.

Former NATO commander says Biden should "go bold with Putin" 07:15

"If we agree to extradite criminals, then of course Russia will do that, we will do that, but only if the other side, in this case the United States, agrees to the same and will extradite the criminals in question to the Russian Federation," he said.  

Treaties in tatters

Geneva also served as the ­­venue for a 1985 summit between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Like three decades ago, this year's meeting in Switzerland could, if all goes well, prevent the world's two biggest nuclear powers from sliding into an open conflict.

Mr. Biden and Putin had an early success in the extension of the "New START" treaty — the only surviving pact between the nations aimed at limiting nuclear weapons development — for five years. But the fabric of what had been, until recent years, a fire-dampening blanket of arms control agreements has frayed considerably.

In 2019, the Trump administration pulled out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a pact signed by Reagan and Gorbachev that for years had imposed strict limits on the development and deployment of a whole class of missiles by both nations. Mr. Trump accused Moscow of violating the deal and suggested he couldn't allow the U.S. to abide by the agreement as it also allowed China, another major U.S. adversary, to continue working on such weapons without impediment. Moscow returned the accusation and abandoned the treaty.

White House weighs next steps in nuclear treaty with Russia 05:50

Last year, the Trump administration also pulled the U.S. out of the Open Skies Treaty, which had allowed both countries to conduct surveillance flights over each other's military sites. Putin said last week that his country wouldn't be seeking to revive the pact.

Meanwhile, Russia has continued to tout developments in its weapons programs, including hypersonic weapons, experimental nuclear-powered cruise missiles and underwater nuclear-capable drones.

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said he was hoping the talks in Geneva might at least bring more clear instructions to expert teams from both countries on how to work toward greater "strategic stability."

Putin has also stressed the need to enable such technical talks. The goal, he told the state-run Russia 24 TV, "is to restore personal contacts, relations, establish a direct dialogue, create functioning mechanisms in those areas that represent mutual interests."

"If after this meeting we will create mechanisms to work on all these areas, I think it would be good," Putin said. "That would allow us to say the meeting was not in vain."

Embassy wars

The Russian and American leaders may also find mutual interest in declaring a ceasefire to years of tit-for-tat diplomatic antagonism.

The U.S. mission in Moscow is operating with only a skeleton team following multiple rounds of staff expulsions, and Russian diplomats in the U.S. are fighting to get back property seized by the Obama administration in retaliation for Moscow's interference in the 2016 election.

The top envoys from both countries were recalled to their respective capitals weeks ago, and any significant progress toward sending them back to their posts would signal a thawing of the virtually frozen diplomatic ties.

Prisoner exchange?

The fate of two Americans imprisoned in Russia, former U.S. Marines Trevor Reed and Paul Whelan, will also be on the agenda for the presidents. Speaking to NBC ahead of the meeting, Putin suggested that he was open to a possible prisoner swap.

Ex-U.S. Marine reacts to 9 year prison sentence in Russia 01:12

Reed was charged with assaulting police officers after a drunken birthday party in Moscow and sentenced to nine years in prison. Whelan is serving a 16-year prison sentence in Russia on espionage charges. Both deny any wrongdoing.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has sent mixed signals as to whether there are already ongoing talks about a prisoner swap but indicated that it would be interested in bringing home Konstantin Yaroshenko, a pilot convicted of smuggling cocaine into the U.S., and Viktor Bout, a notorious arms dealer nicknamed the "Merchant of Death."

But Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov told Russian media on Tuesday that Whelan, at least, wasn't in play.

Paul Whelan won't appeal 16-year sentence in Russia, lawyers say 01:35

"We can resolve the situation with our compatriots serving insane prison terms in the U.S. literally 'in a jiffy'… we are ready to reciprocally hand over their citizens," Ryabkov said. "But Mr. Whelan was not in the lists and mentions we've made; this question is not applicable now — Whelan is not being considered in this context."

He said U.S. officials were aware of Russia's position on the matter.

Russia's red lines

Putin has clearly mapped out some topics he's not interested in discussing this week — namely accusations of a brutal crackdown on his own domestic political foes, including the poisoning attack on and ongoing imprisonment of the country's leading opposition figure, Alexey Navalny.

Navalny spent months recovering in Germany from poisoning with the military-grade nerve agent Novichok, but was then arrested immediately upon his return to Moscow in February. Thousands of people were arrested during weeks of mass-demonstrations across Russia calling for his release.

Visibly gaunt Alexei Navalny makes first public appearance since hunger strike 01:29

In the interview with NBC, Putin would not guarantee that Navalny will ever get out of prison alive.

"Such decisions in this country are not made by the president," he insisted, reiterating his government's denial of any involvement in the poisoning: "We don't have this kind of habit, of assassinating anybody."

In a clear message to the West just days before the summit, Russia dealt a likely fatal blow to Navalny's organization, designating it an outlawed "extremist" group. Most of Navalny's allies and other leading opposition figures have either fled the country or are currently imprisoned.

"Views on our political system can differ," Putin said at a recent meeting with the heads of international news agencies. "Just leave us to determine how to organize this part of our life."

On a personal level

Mr. Biden already has personal history with Putin that may affect the tone of the summit in Geneva. The two first met in 2011, when then-U.S. Vice President Biden, by his own admission, told Putin: "I don't think you have a soul."

Putin has said he has no recollection of the remark.

In March this year, Mr. Biden agreed with a journalist's assessment that the Russian president is "a killer," during a TV interview, prompting Putin to return the accusation and wryly wish his U.S. counterpart "good health."

The Kremlin has indicated willingness to look past the comment, and Putin has even commended Mr. Biden as "a very professional politician."

Whatever the immediate outcome, Geneva will likely prove a less surprising encounter between two world leaders than Putin's summit with Biden's predecessor. Then-President Trump shocked the world when he stood beside Putin and declared as much confidence in the Russian leader as he had in his own American intelligence services.

Trump fights backlash after Helsinki comments 08:33

"When the 2018 Helsinki summit ended, everyone felt that Putin won and Trump was beleaguered," Stanovaya said. "But then this positive result very quickly evaporated and Russia faced a new wave of sanctions, so the summit itself did not give it anything."

"I think the summit itself and what happens post-summit are very different things," Stanoyava said. "What actually happens after it is probably even more important than the summit itself."

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