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International relations

Biden seeks 'stable' relations with Russia in triangle with China

Two sides agree to return ambassadors to respective capitals

U.S. President Joe Biden, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during the U.S.-Russia summit at Villa La Grange in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 16.   © Reuters

NEW YORK/GENEVA/MOSCOW -- U.S. President Joe Biden held his first summit with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Wednesday in Geneva, agreeing to set up new frameworks of dialogue over arms control and cybersecurity.

The two sides also agreed to allow their respective ambassadors to return to their posts.

For Biden, who went in hoping to build a "stable and predictable" relationship, it was a first step in easing tensions with a traditional American rival so as to focus his energy on the new strategic competitor, China.

Biden and Putin noted in a joint statement that the two countries, even in periods of tension, "are able to make progress on our shared goals of ensuring predictability in the strategic sphere, reducing the risk of armed conflicts and the threat of nuclear war."

"We reaffirm the principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought," they said.

The two sides will embark together on an integrated bilateral "Strategic Stability Dialogue" in the near future "that will be deliberate and robust," they said. "Through this Dialogue, we seek to lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures," they said in the three-paragraph-short statement.

From left, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, U.S. President Joe Biden, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov attend the U.S.-Russia summit at Villa La Grange in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 16.   © Reuters

The face-to-face meeting was initiated by Biden and marked the first summit between the leaders of the two countries in three years.

Russia, in terms of national power, is no longer the formidable rival to the U.S. that the Soviet Union was. For Putin, meeting with Biden offers an opportunity to project to both domestic and foreign audiences Moscow's presence in the international arena and helps him strengthen his political foothold at home.

Biden told reporters after the summit that he and Putin "share a unique responsibility to manage the relationship between two powerful and proud countries -- a relationship that has to be stable and predictable," adding that they should be able to cooperate where it is in their mutual interest.

But the two leaders spoke in separate news conferences -- a departure from the usual joint pressers by leaders of the U.S. and countries it is friendly with, and by previous U.S. President Donald Trump with Putin in Helsinki.

U.S.-Russia relations have been widely described as hitting a post-Cold War nadir. Washington has various active sanctions on Moscow, including for meddling in American elections, cyberattacks threatening American infrastructure, human rights violations, and its 2014 invasion of Ukraine.

Biden also initiated the summit -- taking place early in his presidency -- despite historically low American public opinion of Russia following the poisoning of Russian opposition leader and activist Alexei Navalny, in which Kremlin denies playing a part.

The American leader told reporters that "the last thing [Putin] wants now is a cold war" with Washington, characterizing Russia's position as one where it has a multi-thousand-mile border with China, which aspires to become the largest economy with the most powerful military in the world, and where Russia's own economy is struggling.

"Russia is in a very, very difficult spot right now," Biden said before boarding Air Force One to return home. "They are being squeezed by China. They want desperately to remain a major power."

Putin, during his own news conference, described the summit as "constructive" and said he saw a "glimpse of hope" for mutual trust with the U.S. But he said it remains to be seen whether relations with Washington will improve.

Last week, the Kremlin leader had said that Russia and China have developed a strategic partnership previously not achieved, as well as "a high level of trust and cooperation in all areas: in politics, in the economy, in the area of technology, in the area of military and technical cooperation."

"We do not believe that China is a threat to us. That's one," Putin told NBC in an interview.

"China is a friendly nation," he said. "It has not declared us an enemy, as the United States has done."

In response to Putin's remarks, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said in a news conference Tuesday that "indeed, China and Russia are united like a mountain, and our friendship is unbreakable."

U.S. President Joe Biden boards Air Force One in Geneva, Switzerland, after the summit with Russia on June 16.   © Reuters

"The two countries have firmly supported each other on issues concerning each other's core interests, and the political mutual trust and strategic coordination between the two has been continuously consolidated and enhanced," Zhao said.

The Biden-Putin summit, while a potential concern for Beijing, comes as a welcome development for India, which has an increasingly strong partnership with Washington -- including through its membership in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue -- but also shares defense ties with Russia.

"And while India might be especially enthusiastic about a U.S.-Russian detente, it is not alone in Asia," wrote C. Raja Mohan, director of the National University of Singapore's Institute of South Asian Studies, in a Foreign Policy article ahead of the summit.

"Many others in the region believe that an independent Russian role will create more wiggle room for themselves in the emerging confrontation between China and the United States," Mohan argued.

Wednesday's summit, also attended by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, ran past three hours but wrapped up sooner than many expected. A senior American official denied that talks ended early.

Biden said the meeting was already lengthy for a summit between two world leaders and that they went into "excruciating detail" in their conversation. The tone of the entire meeting was "good, positive."

"I did what I came to do," he said: identify areas of practical work to advance mutual interests; communicate directly that the U.S. will respond to acts that impair its own or allies' vital interests, and clearly lay out American priorities and values.

"Another area we spent a great deal of time on was cyber and cybersecurity," he said. "I talked about the proposition that certain critical infrastructure should be off-limits to attack -- period -- by cyber or any other means."

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