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Tough diplomatic face-off: Putin, Biden to meet as US-Russia relations hit rock bottom

Flags of Russia and the US fly outside the villa La Grange ahead of Putin-Biden summit in Geneva, on June 15, 2021. (Photo by TASS)

The much-awaited summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his US counterpart President Joe Biden is set to take place within hours in the Swiss city of Geneva, with wide disagreements likely and expectations low for any breakthroughs. The first face-to-face meeting between the two presidents since Biden took office comes at a time when bilateral relations between Moscow and Washington have deteriorated to their lowest point in recent years and are even worse than during the Cold War.

The talks -- aimed at resolving US-Russia differences -- will be held in Villa La Grange, an elegant gray mansion set in a 30-hectare park overlooking Lake Geneva at around 1:00 pm (1100 GMT) on Wednesday.

Putin is due to arrive at the venue first, followed by Biden, and with Swiss President Guy Parmelin acting as the host.

Flags of Russia, the US and Switzerland fly outside the villa La Grange, on the eve of the US - Russia summit in Geneva, on June 15, 2021. (Photo by AFP)

Both Putin and Biden have expressed hope that their meeting would lead to more stable and predictable relations, even though they remain at odds over a range of issues from arms control and cyber-hacking to election interference and Ukraine.

The two presidents are expected to talk for four to five hours, with no break for meals in a sign of the strained ties. They are also expected to hold separate news conferences rather than a joint one.

"We're not expecting a big set of deliverables out of this meeting," a senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters aboard Air Force One as Biden flew to Geneva on Tuesday after summits with NATO and the European Union in Brussels, and a G7 summit in Britain.

When asked if the two leaders might share food together, a staple gesture of goodwill in summit diplomacy, the official said, "There will be no breaking of bread."

Russia's presidential aide Yuri Ushakov also said, "I'm not sure that any agreements will be reached."

He told journalists in Moscow that the US-Russian relationship is "at an impasse," adding that there is "not much" ground for optimism.

Putin and Biden will begin the talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken present, along with interpreters, before being joined by aides for a larger session.

Biden has said that his main goal for attending the tense summit is simply to draw clear "red lines" for Putin over what the White House will no longer tolerate from Russia.

"I'm not looking for conflict," he said in Brussels after the NATO summit, but "we will respond if Russia continues its harmful activities."

Putin, however, will come to the summit, arguing that Moscow is simply challenging US hegemony as part of a bid to promote a so-called "multi-polar" world.  

Mutual grievances on agenda

The key issues expected to be on the agenda are alleged state-sponsored cyberattacks and interference in elections, human rights violations, arms control conflicts, tensions over Ukraine and prisoners exchange.  

Over the past year, some 2,400 ransomware attacks have hit American corporate, local and federal offices in extortion plots that lock up victims’ data.

Washington claims that the cyber attacks have been carried out either by Russian security services or hackers with links to the Kremlin.

Biden's administration imposed sanctions against Russia in April in response to cyberattacks that targeted federal organizations and US companies.

Washington at the same time also brought penalties against Moscow for allegedly meddling in the 2020 presidential election.

Russia has denied accusations of involvement in recent US cyberattacks as well as interference in the country’s elections.   

In turn, Moscow has accused Washington of backing opposition groups opposed to the Kremlin, saying the West is financially backing organizations and media critical of Russian authorities.

The two countries are also at odds over the case of detained Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny and his health condition.  

Biden has said he will reiterate Washington's commitment to "human rights and dignity" at the summit and has repeatedly voiced support for “Russia's increasingly embattled opposition.”

Putin has in turn accused Washington of "double standards" and of seeking to interfere in Russian domestic affairs.

Russia has repeatedly warned the US embassy in Moscow against encouraging illegal protests and meddling in the case of Navalny.

Moscow and Washington have also in recent years accused each other of breaching security agreements.

However, they agreed to extend the New START arms control treaty earlier this year that puts a limit on the development and deployment of strategic nuclear warheads of both countries.

There has also been escalating tensions between Moscow and the United States over Ukraine in recent months.

The US and its Western allies accuse Moscow of stirring tensions through the military build-up along its border with Ukraine. Russia, however, says it is taking defensive measures on its own territory in the face of increased NATO activity in Ukraine.

Ties between Moscow and Washington have also hit the bottom over Biden’s offensive “killer” comment about Putin.

Meanwhile, a prisoner swap with the United States is likely to come up for discussion at the summit.  

Putin, ahead of the summit, renewed an offer to swap prisoners after Biden said US citizens detained in Russia would be on the agenda.

According to the Kremlin, the heads of state will discuss the conditions and prospects for further fostering Russian-US relations, strategic stability matters as well as pressing issues on the international agenda, which include cooperation in fighting the pandemic and regulating regional conflicts.

Despite the fact that a grueling diplomatic face-off awaits at the summit, the White House and Kremlin have both said they are open to doing business in a limited way.

According to Russian and US officials, one possible step might be the quick reinstatement of the two countries' ambassadors, who returned home this year in response to tensions.

The Geneva summit, which will take place following long US-Russian negotiations over its timing and location, recalls the Cold War summit between US president Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the Swiss city in 1985.

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