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US and Russia stage thaw in relations

One of the first steps will be the return of ambassadors to both Moscow and Washington
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AP/PATRICK SEMANSKY  -   President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive to meet at the Villa la Grange, Wednesday, June 16, 2021, in Geneva, Switzerland

Geneva has been armoured today to host the bilateral summit between the United States and Russia. US President Joe Biden arrived in Switzerland after an incessant European tour in which he stressed the threat posed by the rise of China, as well as the security challenges posed by Russia, especially in the area of cybersecurity. The meeting is of great importance given the current tensions between the two countries, where diplomatic relations are at their lowest point.

The Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, had already said that he harboured few hopes for this meeting, which will be the first contact between the two leaders since Joe Biden arrived at the White House on 20 January. Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin are old acquaintances, having met during the Obama administration when Putin was prime minister. Their relationship has never been very fluid; indeed, during a meeting under the Obama administration in 2011, Joe Biden, who held the post of vice president, even told the Russian president that he "had no soul", to which Putin replied, "then we'll understand each other".

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AP/SAUL LOEB - President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the US-Russia summit at the 'Villa la Grange'

Little has changed now that Joe Biden is president. Last March, during an interview, when asked if he thought Putin was a murderer, Biden answered "Yes" categorically. With all this history behind them, the two leaders were about to have their first face-to-face meeting, in a trip that represents the first abroad for the Russian president since the pandemic began. Vladimir Putin arrived punctually at the Villa La Grange in Geneva for his meeting with his US counterpart, who appeared moments later. The two leaders greeted each other with a handshake to mark the start of the summit.

Too many thorny issues were on the table: Ukraine, Belarus, Russian manoeuvres in the Arctic, the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, cyber-attacks and Russian interference in the 2016 and 2020 elections, among many others. With so many issues to discuss, the meeting lasted nearly four hours, and once the summit was over, the first to speak was Russian President Vladimir Putin, who gave a positive assessment of the dialogue with Biden. On this occasion, it had already been announced that there would not be a joint declaration and that the two leaders would make their statements separately, a detail that denotes a certain distrust between the two leaders.

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AP/DENIS BALIBOUSE - US President Joe Biden, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, right

One of the main advances in diplomatic relations is the return of the US ambassador to Moscow and the Russian ambassador to Washington, John Sullivan and Anatoli Antonov, respectively. Tensions between the two countries came to a head in March following Biden's accusations of "murder", to which the Kremlin responded by recalling its ambassador to the US for consultations, and recommended that the head of the US delegation leave the country. The US, for its part, imposed sanctions on Russia and expelled ten diplomats for its alleged interference in the 2020 presidential election, as well as its alleged role in the massive SolarWinds cyberattack.

The return of the ambassadors is symptomatic of a thaw in relations between Russia and the US, as well as a first step towards mutual understanding. Vladimir Putin, however, did not want to specify how or when it will take place. "As for the timetable, tomorrow or the day after is a pure technicality," Putin said. Likewise, one of the main threats that US President Joe Biden had been complaining about was the cyber-attacks of which he has accused Moscow on several occasions, the last of which forced the shutdown of the great Colonial oil pipeline on the East Coast, one of the major energy arteries of the United States. According to President Vladimir Putin, the two leaders have agreed to begin consultations on cybersecurity.

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AP/DENIS BALIBOUSE - US President Joe Biden, second from left, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, Russian President Vladimir Putin, second from right, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, right

For his part, Joe Biden, during his speech, agreed with Putin and gave a positive assessment of the meeting, although he was somewhat harsher in his account. The US president began by stressing that "his agenda is not against Russia" but that he will continue to fervently defend human rights and that "he will continue to raise his voice in cases such as that of Alexei Navalny". Joe Biden approached the meeting with the aim of establishing a "stable" and "predictable" relationship with the Kremlin.

The US president discussed with his counterpart Vladimir Putin all the burning issues, from Ukraine to Belarus, Afghanistan and the demilitarisation of the Arctic. Joe Biden also explained that it was important to meet in person so that "basic rules" could be established in the relationship between the two countries, as well as establishing red lines that include attacks on critical infrastructures. Joe Biden stressed that the two leaders had agreed to cooperate on issues of strategic stability. "The United States is back, together with our allies", he concluded his speech after a summit of vital importance in the face of a new Cold War scenario.

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AP/DENIS BALIBOUSE - Swiss President Guy Parmelin, centre, poses for a photo with US President Joe Biden, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russia and the United States are already old enemies, and this summit highlights the importance of an understanding between the two, even if only a minimal one. With this meeting, Joe Biden has repositioned the Kremlin as a superpower at a time when its image has been badly damaged by the severe economic crisis that has rocked the country. The relationship between the two countries has always been marked by their great differences when it comes to exercising their role as a power. This summit marks the end of a possible rupture in relations between the two countries, while the United States places China as its main competitor, and therefore the West's "number one enemy".