U.S. President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin exchanged cordial words and made modest progress on arms control and bilateral diplomacy, but ended their meeting in Switzerland Wednesday largely where they began: with deep differences over human rights, cyberattacks, election meddling and other issues.
The two rulers reached an important but hardly relationship-changing agreement to reinstate their ambassadors in Moscow and Washington after they were recalled following a deterioration in the bilateral relationship in recent months. And they agreed to begin work on a plan to strengthen the last existing treaty limiting the two nations’ nuclear weapons.
However, in their three hours of talks on the shores of Lake Geneva, the two held firm to the same positions in which they had begun.
I don’t think he will change his behavior, Biden declared at a press conference following the meeting, when asked what evidence he saw that the former KGB agent might change his ways and actions. What will change his behavior is the rest of the world reacting to them, and his standing in the world diminishing. I am not sure of anything.
Both the White House and the Kremlin had anticipated little before the summit. At its conclusion they issued a joint statement in which they said their meeting showed the practical work our two countries can do to advance our mutual interests and also benefit the world.
But time and again, Biden only responded we’ll see when assessing whether discussions on nuclear power, cybersecurity and other thorny issues will pay off.
In their respective back-to-back press conferences at the end of the summit, Biden and Putin made it clear that getting to the root of U.S.-Russia tensions will remain an enormously difficult task. One example was the moment when the two sides, at least in public statements, outlined drastically different realities on cyber issues.
Biden came to the summit demanding that Putin put an end to the wave of Russian-originated ransomware and cybersecurity attacks that have been targeting businesses and government agencies in the United States and around the world. But when the meeting came to an end, there was no evidence that any progress had been made beyond the superficial level.
Biden said he made it clear to Putin that if Russia crossed certain red lines “including going after major infrastructure in the United States,” his government would respond and the consequences of that would be devastating.
For his part, Putin continued to insist that Russia had nothing to do with these cyber intrusions, despite U.S. intelligence to the contrary.
Most cyber attacks in the world are carried out from U.S. cyber territory, said Putin, who also mentioned Canada, two Latin American countries he did not identify and Great Britain in his list.
While the U.S., Canada and Britain do engage in cyberespionage, the most damaging attacks on record have been carried out by Russian state-backed hackers or Russian-speaking ransomware criminals who operate with impunity in Russia and allied nations.
In fact, the worst of the cyberattacks were attributed by the United States and the European Union to Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency, including the NotPetya virus that caused more than $10 billion in economic damage in 2017, affecting companies including shipping giant Maersk, pharmaceutical company Merck and food company Mondolez.