Analysis: Biden’s meeting with Putin presented a strained relationship beneath a veneer of civil discourse.

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President Biden and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia met in Geneva on Wednesday.
Credit...Doug Mills/The New York Times

Peter Baker

June 17, 2021

By all appearances, President Biden’s much-anticipated meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was not warm, but neither was it hot.

As he became the fifth American president to sit down with Mr. Putin, Mr. Biden on Wednesday made an effort to forge a working relationship shorn of the ingratiating flattery of his immediate predecessor yet without the belligerent language that he himself has employed about the Russian leader in the past.

If their opening encounter in Geneva proves any indication, theirs seems likely to be a strained and frustrating association, one where the two leaders may maintain a veneer of civil discourse even as they joust on the international stage and in the shadows of cyberspace. The two emerged from two and a half hours of meetings having reviewed a laundry list of disputes without a hint of resolution to any of them and no sign of a personal bond that could bridge the gulf that has opened between their two nations.

Their assessments of each other were dutiful but restrained. Mr. Putin called Mr. Biden “a very balanced, professional man,” while Mr. Biden avoided characterizing his counterpart. This year, the president had agreed with an interviewer that Mr. Putin was a “killer.” But on Wednesday, Mr. Biden said that he had no need to discuss that further. “Why would I bring it up again?”

But in a sign of his sensitivity to criticism that he was too accommodating to Mr. Putin, Mr. Biden grew testy with a reporter who asked how he could be confident that Mr. Putin’s behavior would change. “When did I say I was confident?” he snapped.

The critique has turned into an increasingly loud talking point by Republicans, who rarely protested President Donald J. Trump’s chummy bromance with Mr. Putin. But it is also a worry shared by some inside Mr. Biden’s own administration.

During a solo news conference that followed the sit-down between leaders — Mr. Biden opted not to share a stage his Russian counterpart — the president emphasized that he did not place his faith in Mr. Putin.

“This is not about trust,” Mr. Biden said. “This is about self-interest and verification of self-interest.”

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