Joe Biden Just Had a Summit with Vladimir Putin and Nothing Crazy Happened

The circumstances surrounding his meeting with Vladimir Putin were such that Biden could come out of it with the world wondering why he’d bothered at all.

The triumph of Geneva is that it was not Helsinki.

Did Joe Biden finally exorcise the ghost of Helsinki? “I did what I came to do,” he declared on Wednesday, at the end of an afternoon summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Speaking to reporters in brilliant sunshine outside an eighteenth-century villa in Geneva, where the two had concluded several hours of discussion, Biden insisted that he left the meeting with a “genuine prospect” for improved relations with Russia. He also announced further talks, on nuclear arms and cyberwarfare, that may or may not lead to new agreements. Just as newsy as the meeting’s limited concrete outcomes was the image of an American President standing up to Putin in all the ways that Donald Trump—the last American President to meet Putin—never did.

Back in 2018, on a lovely summer day in Helsinki, in a press conference that will long be remembered as a most bizarre sellout of American interests, Trump had alternately praised his Russian counterpart and cowered to him. He said that he accepted Putin’s word over that of his own intelligence agencies about Russia’s election interference in 2016. He blamed the United States for bad relations with Russia. Putin stood smirking alongside him as he said all of these things.

Biden’s summit was carefully orchestrated to send a very different message. Most significantly, given Helsinki, there would be no joint press conference, no side-by-side appearance at which Putin could upstage Biden or provoke or taunt him. Biden would not meet alone with Putin, without a note-taker, as Trump had insisted on doing—who knows why—in 2018. And there would be no chatty lunch or informal socializing, as is often scheduled during such superpower summits.

The timing of the meeting in Geneva—after a round of meetings with Western counterparts in the United Kingdom and Brussels—also underscored Biden’s I’m-not-Trump approach. The President only met with Putin after days of mutual lovefests with Western allies; Trump ended up in Helsinki after a nato summit so contentious that he had forced the group into an emergency session and, at one point, even threatened to blow up the alliance. Biden, in contrast, arrived in Geneva representing a more publicly united front. Unlike Trump. And unlike Putin, for that matter, who has . . . Belarus? China, sort of? At a nato summit on Monday, the alliance released a lengthy communiqué that mentioned Russia sixty-two times, characterizing the country as a “threat” and cataloguing a variety of grievances and concerns about its actions in recent years.

Still, the many days of buildup also risked the summit seeming like a letdown. No matter how low Biden’s advisers sought to set expectations, Putin has engaged in a series of provocations in recent months—from sending more than a hundred thousand troops to the border with Ukraine to jailing Russia’s main opposition leader to unleashing crippling cyberattacks inside the United States—that progress of any kind seemed unlikely. Biden could still come out of it with the world and much of Washington wondering just why had he bothered with the summit in the first place.

As the capstone for Biden’s first overseas trip as President, the Putin meeting began with a photo op in a spectacular book-lined study in the sprawling Villa La Grange, on Lake Geneva. The smallest details were covered as breathless breaking news: What does it mean that Biden called the Russian leader a “worthy adversary” before the meeting? Why did Putin call Biden a “career man,” given that his own two decades in power make him Russia’s longest-serving leader since Josef Stalin? During a long wait for the two leaders to come out and actually say something, reporters pored over the staged photos in search of meaning; one sharp-eyed Mexican journalist even noted that the two delegations each had their own different brand of bottled water.

When Putin emerged to hold the first post-summit debrief with the press, it became clear that the pre-game Kremlinology was pointless. Putin was still the usual Putin, if a bit more restrained than usual. His default play has long been to rebuff all critical questions about Russia with criticism of the United States, and it should be stipulated that Putin remains world class in the art of whataboutism. Pressed by reporters, he answered questions about human rights in Russia by talking about the U.S. prison in Guantánamo, U.S. drone strikes on an Afghan wedding party, and shootings in U.S. streets. Later, he threw in references to Black Lives Matter protests, American support for a “bloodthirsty coup d’état” in Ukraine in 2014, and the U.S.’s withdrawal from various treaties in recent years. In fact, Putin insisted, “everything to do with the deterioration of our mutual relations was initiated not by us but by the U.S.A.” Eventually, and to no one’s surprise, he got around to mentioning the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, offering up a pro-Trump version of events in which protesters were arrested “on what grounds, it’s not clear.”

Beyond that, there was little to be learned from Putin’s press conference. His opening statement was so brief that it suggested he did not want to talk about the meeting at all. True to form, he did not admit to carrying out cyberattacks, never mind agree to cease them. He revealed that the two countries had decided to return their ambassadors to their posts after months of hostilities, acknowledged that Biden had brought up human rights, and offered a sense that “professional,” “constructive” dialogue had taken place. His tone regarding Biden was cordial. It all seemed like the kind of post-summit press conference that might have taken place in a different time.

Biden was more forthcoming in his remarks. He had vowed in advance that he would talk tough to Putin, and he insisted afterward that he had done so. He said he promised “devastating” consequences if the jailed Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny should die, and serious but unspecified retaliation if Russia continues its cyberattacks inside the United States. Biden said he told Putin that “human rights is going to always be on the table.” It’s “part of the DNA of our country.” Biden did not mention Trump or make explicit any comparison with his predecessor, who cared not at all about human rights; as is often the case, Biden did not have to.

Perhaps the most revealing moment of Biden’s press conference came at the end, as he was walking out. The President got testy at a shouted question from CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, about whether this could be called a successful summit given Putin’s obvious recalcitrance. “Why are you so confident he’ll change his behavior, Mr. President?” she asked. Turning back to confront her, Biden said, “I’m not confident he’ll change his behavior. When did I say I was confident?” The flash of anger, if nothing else, showed what most concerned Biden: that he might be portrayed as falling, once again, into Putin’s trap. Falling for Putin was what Trump had done, and Biden is clearly striving to be the un-Trump. No one was going to portray him as Putin’s dupe. “I’m not confident of anything,” Biden added. “I’m just stating the facts.”

When he got to the airport, Biden seemed a bit chagrined at his own display of temper. “I owe my last questioner an apology. I shouldn’t have been such a wise guy,” he told pool reporters who were waiting to board Air Force One. Donald Trump never would have said that, either.

So did Biden succeed at least in banishing the memory of Trump’s gross betrayal in Helsinki? It may prove easier to convince Putin that America has moved on than Republicans back in Washington, where the bizarre legacy of Trump has distorted the politics of Russia policy more than almost any other issue. For his part, Trump refuses to disavow Putin or anything about their Helsinki summit. Indeed, in a statement he issued before the Geneva meeting, Trump once again reminded the world of it. Helsinki, Trump said, was “great and very productive,” a meeting where he “won . . . the respect of President Putin and Russia.” As for his most shocking claim in Finland—that he would take Putin’s word over that of U.S. intelligence agencies regarding Russia’s interference in the 2016 election—Trump is still clinging to that one, too, presenting it as an easy choice between Putin and the “sleazebags” and “lowlifes” in America’s intelligence community. In April, in an interview with the Fox News host Sean Hannity, Trump practically rhapsodized about his relationship with Putin. “I got along great with President Putin,” Trump said. “I liked him. He liked me.” Trump does not want to move on from Helsinki; he still thinks he did great.

That, of course, did not stop many Republicans this week from attacking Biden about the Putin summit, as if Helsinki had never happened. The Trump confidant Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, told Hannity that Biden was practicing “appeasement” of Putin. Mike Pompeo, Trump’s former Secretary of State, said on the same show that refusing to hold a joint press conference with Putin—as Trump had—was an admission of “enormous weakness” on Biden’s part. During the summit, three Republican senators—Ted Cruz, John Barrasso, and Ron Johnson—put out a joint statement that said Biden was “sending a message of weakness and appeasement to our adversaries, encouraging and emboldening them.”

Historical revisionism, it seems, is not confined to Trump’s efforts to turn his 2020 defeat into a victory, or the January 6th pro-Trump riot at the Capitol into a peaceful celebration of democracy. If nothing else, the hypocritical bashing of Biden for holding a summit with Putin is a reminder that, as much as Trump sycophancy is the new normal for the Republican Party, the old normal of attacking Democrats as soft on Russia is still around, too. Can they coexist? We live in a choose-your-reality era of politics. For Trump, Helsinki will live forever; for other Republicans, the Cold War never died. There’s an audience for both, I guess. 

So why not?