(CN) — U.S. President Joe Biden ended his first foreign trip with a high-stakes summit in Geneva on Wednesday where he and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to open discussions on arms control, cyber security and avoiding conflicts in the Arctic.
At a villa overlooking Lake Geneva, the two presidents met at a moment when relations between the two countries are at their lowest in years and as fears grow of a new Cold War emerging between the United States and Russia and China.
But Biden and Putin came away from a four-hour meeting agreeing to return their respective ambassadors to their posts and open dialogue on a range of issues. Both presidents characterized the talks as constructive and respectful, though at separate news conferences they showed little room for compromise and displayed entirely opposed world views.
At his news conference, Biden portrayed Putin’s Russia as a closed, economically stunted, neurotic and dangerous failing state that went wrong after it rejected democracy following the fall of the Soviet Union in the mistaken belief that was the only way it could remain a world power.
During his own news conference, Putin rejected allegations that Russia was a rogue state and painted the U.S. as hypocritical when it talks about human rights and upholding democratic values, pointing to secret CIA prisons, captives held at Guantanamo Bay and civilian deaths in Afghanistan caused by American bombs.
Still, the Geneva summit may help ease tensions between the U.S. and Russia, which are at odds on almost every issue in world politics, whether it be Iran, Syria, China, arms control and Ukraine.
“The tone of the entire meeting was good, positive; there wasn’t any strident action taken,” Biden said. “It was not done in a hyperbolic atmosphere, too much of that has been going on.”
Biden used the meeting to lay down red lines with Putin, especially in the realm of cyberattacks. He said he warned Putin the U.S. would respond forcefully to any cyberattacks on American infrastructure.
The U.S. has been hit by recent ransomware attacks, which American intelligence services say were perpetrated by actors in Russia but not the Russian state.
Putin denied any responsibility for cyberattacks on the U.S. and alleged that American-based actors are responsible for more cyberattacks than Russians. Both sides agreed to discuss going after cybercriminals.
Biden said talks between U.S. and Russian officials also will focus on reviving arms control measures and preventing an unintended conflict between the nuclear-armed powers.
He said there are many other areas where Russia and the U.S. can find areas of agreement, such as opening up humanitarian corridors in Syria, kickstarting peace negotiations in Ukraine, preventing a resurgence of terrorism in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of NATO and U.S. troops, stopping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and ensuring the Arctic region doesn’t become a conflict zone. The Arctic is becoming more strategically important as ships are able to traverse it due to global warming.
Biden said he admonished Putin over his treatment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and called on him to uphold human rights. Putin alleged Navalny’s organizations, which were recently labeled as extremists and banned, are supported by U.S. funds and seek to overthrow the Russian government.
Biden argued it is in Russia’s interest to open up its society, uphold democratic values and human rights, and avoid antagonizing the U.S. at a time when China is growing stronger.
“The last thing he wants now is a Cold War,” Biden said about Putin.
Biden said the next six months will demonstrate whether Russia is willing to moderate its actions: “Let’s see what happens.”
The Geneva summit capped a busy, and productive, week for Biden in Europe where he convinced European allies to take a stand with the U.S. against China.
Other than curbing China’s rise, Biden’s main objective on this trip been to erase the idea that the U.S. will follow his predecessor Donald Trump’s inward-looking and erratic “America First” foreign policy.
But Biden seems to be doing more than that and setting an ambitious goal to return the U.S. to a status such as it had after World War II, when it was the driving force behind building an international rules-based world order.
Repeatedly, Biden said he sees a new world order is emerging because of technological advances, climate change and the rise of new powers, and that a new international rulebook needs to be written. He said it is in the world’s interest that democracies, and not autocracies, are the ones setting the new rules.
To make his point, Biden on several occasions cited Irish poet William Butler Yeats’ line in his famous poem about the Irish uprising against British rule – the Easter Rising of 1916: “All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.”
“I think all has changed in the last 10, 12 years, and it’s not because of any one person,” Biden told reporters on the eve of his summit with Putin. “I think we’re in the midst of terrible beauty having been born – a great shift in technology, a great shift in the development of the world, and it’s causing great anxiety in each [of] our countries.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.