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What's Up For (Pointed) Discussion At Biden-Putin Summit


It's hard to guess quite where President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin will start when they meet face-to-face in Geneva next week. The list of friction points between their countries is long, and it keeps getting longer by the day. New cyberattacks keep coming to light, and the hackers, according to U.S. intelligence, are sitting in Russia. Then there's the Russian troop buildup on the border with Ukraine, the dissident journalist snatched off a plane by a Russian ally, Belarus. And that's probably just page one of the list. We thought it might be useful to check through, one by one, what is likely to be on the summit agenda, kind of a cheat sheet to follow along next week.

Our guide is diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen. She's at the State Department, and she's with us now. Hey there.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi there, Mary Louise.

KELLY: OK, before we get into chewing over what these two presidents are going to be chewing over, just take us big picture. Former President Trump was all about these one-on-ones. How important actually are they in shaping the U.S.-Russia relationship?

KELEMEN: Well, the Biden team has pointed out that nothing really gets done with Russia without Vladimir Putin. I mean, it's a centralized system. He calls the shots, and President Biden knows that.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: When I spoke to President Putin, I expressed my belief that communication between the two of us personally and directly was to be essential in moving forward.

KELEMEN: You know, Biden has been involved in U.S. foreign policy for decades as a senator, as vice president and now president. And Putin, of course, is on his fifth U.S. president here.

KELLY: OK, well, let's dig in on the substance of the talks. And I actually thought it might be handy to divide this into buckets. So let me introduce, as bucket No. 1, cyber. From SolarWinds to Colonial Pipeline to the JBS meat processing plant, these - the attacks just keep coming. What will President Biden's message be on this?

KELEMEN: You know, it's one of those areas where the U.S. and Russia often talk past each other. Putin always denies responsibility. But these attacks just continue.


ANTONY BLINKEN: This is front and center in our focus.

KELEMEN: In budget hearings this week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken seemed to indicate kind of a new approach to this. He said Biden is going to raise the recent ransomware attacks.


BLINKEN: States cannot be in the business of harboring those who are engaged in these kinds of attacks.

KELEMEN: The U.S. is trying to build up norms and rules of the road and work with other allies and partners on this to give that united message to Russia.

KELLY: Of course, as you and I have noted in past, it's one thing to deliver that message to Putin and another thing to actually stop the behavior from continuing. So we'll watch what actually emerges on that front. Bucket No. 2 - human rights. This is a big bucket, and it, of course, includes Alexei Navalny, the poisoned, now-imprisoned chief political opponent of President Putin. I should note, there was a significant court ruling in Russia this week that fits into the crackdown on dissent. Explain what's going on there.

KELEMEN: Right. So the Russian government has effectively declared these organizations linked to Navalny as extremist groups, you know, just like ISIS or al-Qaida. So, you know, they're really laying down the marker and trying to...

KELLY: They're effectively outlawing political opposition in Russia. I mean, that's what it boils down to.

KELEMEN: Right. And, you know, I should note that there are elections coming up for the Duma, the lower house of Parliament, in September. So this decision to label these groups as extremist will mean that their supporters won't be able to run, and it really could upend their strategy to try to push for any candidates that oppose Putin's united Russia.

KELLY: So what's the Biden message here going to be?

KELEMEN: Well, you know, I was talking last night to an aide to Alexei Navalny who's in Washington to try to get the State Department and U.S. lawmakers to really push for more targeted sanctions on Putin's inner circle and to make sure the Navalny case is raised. Now, State Department spokesperson Ned Price did put out a fairly strong statement this week on the latest moves against Navalny's political movement. And he also often says, you know, human rights are a key element of Biden's foreign policy.


NED PRICE: Human rights broadly will feature in the summit, as well as the detention of various individuals.

KELLY: So that's two buckets down - cyber and human rights. Bucket No. 3, which I'm going to call Russian aggression towards its European neighbors, notably Ukraine - what message are each of these presidents hoping to send about Russia's military interventions, ambitions, in the region?

KELEMEN: Putin is determined to show that, you know, none of this works - the pressure, the outrage statements coming from Europe, the sanctions - that this is his region, and he's going to do what he's going to do. The Biden administration has been looking for ways to deter the Russians. We've heard from Biden, you know, this reconfirming America's unwavering commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity - those were the words of a White House statement recently. And Biden has invited Ukraine's president to come to the White House this summer. I should also say that he's - you know, he's made a point of going, first, to NATO and meeting with the G-7 leaders and talking about this as an alliance, that the Western alliance has these kind of norms, and this is how they're going to try to present it to the Russians.

KELLY: Yeah, that's a key point, as this whole trip has been choreographed so that Biden will be landing in Geneva with the winds of NATO at his back and the full weight of the alliance behind him. Let me dangle one last bucket, Michele, and this might be a small bucket, but any areas where these two see eye to eye?

KELEMEN: There are. I mean, you know, look; relations have been spiraling down for years, and I think one of the hopes is that they can kind of put a floor under this. The Biden administration has talked about how it wants a more predictable and stable relationship. So you think about areas like the Arctic region, for instance. That's an area where they can work together. Climate change - Putin attended Biden's climate summit. That was a virtual summit, of course, but, you know, that's an area. These two countries have the largest nuclear arsenals in the world, and one of the first things that Biden did when he came to office was extend the new START agreement. That's the only one left that places caps on the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.

And U.S. and Russian diplomats are part of the effort in Vienna right now to revive the Iran nuclear deal. That's the one the Trump administration left. Those talks are heading into a sixth round. So there are areas where they are working together or could work together, but they really need to put a floor on this spiraling relationship.

KELLY: NPR's Michele Kelemen giving us a bucket list there, as it were, to get us ready for the summit next week. Thanks, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

KELLY: And by the way, I will be there. We've got a team headed to Geneva to be on the ground as things unfold, and you can hear our reporting right here on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

(SOUNDBITE OF HNNY'S "MEMORY TAPE ONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Courtney Dorning
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.