US President Joe Biden and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are set to meet in Geneva on Wednesday, in their first presidential encounter.
It’s likely to be a strained affair — Biden’s description of Putin as “a killer” was just one of several icy exchanges between the two leaders.
Shortly after taking office, Biden gives a tough speech at the State Department that is a 180- degree pivot from his predecessor Donald Trump’s muted approach to Moscow.
He pledges to toughen the US stance on Putin, for whom Trump had voiced admiration.
Read more: Biden warns Russia over cyber attacks
“I made it clear to President Putin — in a manner very different from my predecessor — that the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions, interfering with our elections, cyber-attacks and poisoning its citizens are over,” Biden said in February.
The Kremlin slams what it calls Biden’s “very aggressive and unconstructive rhetoric”.
In an interview with ABC News broadcast in March, Biden says Putin will “pay a price” for allegedly trying to undermine his candidacy in the US 2020 election. Asked if he thought Putin was “a killer”, Biden replies, “I do.”
The comments sparked the biggest crisis between Russia and the US in years, with Moscow recalling its ambassador for consultations and warning that ties were on the brink of outright “collapse”.
The reason Biden is breaking w longstanding tradition and protocol, refusing to hold a news conference with Putin, is because he called Putin a "killer". Biden knows the first Q from the press is do you still consider Putin a killer and did you tell him that during your meeting?
— Ari Fleischer (@AriFleischer) June 15, 2021
In response Putin mocks Biden, saying “It takes one to know one.” “We always see in another person our own qualities and think that he is the same as us,” Putin adds.
Time to deescalate
A bid to cool tensions comes in April when Biden, after announcing sanctions against Russia, says that for both countries “now is the time to deescalate”.
During a phone call, Biden says he was “clear with President Putin that we could have gone further” but adds that Washington is “not looking to kick off a cycle of escalation and conflict with Russia.”
Read more: Putin hopes Biden less impulsive than Trump
He proposes the two leaders hold a summit meeting in a third country to discuss Russian sabre-rattling on Ukraine, the treatment of jailed Putin opponent Alexei Navalny, and other flashpoints.
Late May Biden announces that the summit will take place on June 16 in Geneva. In his remarks Biden also reiterates his tough line on Moscow, saying the US will push Russia on its human rights record.
“I’ll be making it clear that we will not stand by and let him abuse those rights,” Biden says.
In Washington, there is a lot of consensus on China, but little consensus on Russia. It's interesting the political crowd, including the State Dept, favor a tough line with Moscow, whereas the natsec people (NSC) want a more nuanced policy toward Putin.https://t.co/b63VMCIJvG
— Artyom Lukin (@ArtyomLukin) June 16, 2021
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says Moscow is not expecting any major breakthrough in Wednesday’s talks.
“We are not under any illusions and we are not trying to create the impression that there will be any breakthrough, any historic fateful decisions,” he says.
In an interview on NBC News at the weekend, Putin chuckled when he was asked directly whether he was “a killer”, but did not give a yes or no answer.
“I’ve gotten used to attacks from all kinds of angles… under all kinds of pretext and reasons and of different calibre and fierceness, and none of it surprises me,” he said, adding that “killer” was a “macho” term common in Hollywood.
Such discourse “is part of US political culture where it’s considered normal. By the way, not here, it is not considered normal here,” he said.
A worthy adversary
Days before the hotly anticipated summit, Biden promises he will lay down “red lines” to Putin.
Speaking in Brussels after his first NATO summit since being elected, Biden insists: “I’m not looking for conflict with Russia, but we will respond if Russia continues its harmful activities.”
He also calls Putin “tough” and “a worthy adversary”.
AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk