President Joe Biden and President Vladimir Putin face off Wednesday at a tense Geneva summit, where ghosts of the Cold War will hover over modern-day US concerns about Russian cyber attacks and what the White House sees as a dangerous authoritarian drift.
The setting — a sumptuous villa overlooking Lake Geneva — may be picturesque, but a gruelling diplomatic face-off awaits.
Up to five hours of talks are planned, starting at around 1:00 p.m. (1100 GMT), with no break for meals. Putin is due to arrive first, then Biden, with Swiss President Guy Parmelin acting as host.
Asked if the two leaders might share food together, a staple gesture of goodwill in summit diplomacy, a senior US official said no.
“There will be no breaking of bread,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The choice of Geneva, following long US-Russian negotiations, recalls the Cold War summit between US president Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the Swiss city in 1985.
The villa, surrounded by lush lawns against a backdrop of mountains, was under intense security. Grey patrol boats cruised along the lake front and heavily armed camouflaged troops stood guard at a nearby yacht marina.
This time, tensions are less about strategic nuclear weapons and competing ideologies than what the Biden administration sees as an increasingly hostile, rule-breaking regime.
From cyber attacks on American entities and meddling in the last two US presidential elections to human rights violations and aggression against Ukraine and other European countries, Washington’s list of allegations against the Kremlin runs long.
Putin, however, comes to the summit arguing that Moscow is simply challenging US hegemony. It’s part of a bid to promote a so-called “multi-polar” world that has seen Russia and arguably even more powerful US adversary China draw close.
Putin was to fly into Geneva from Moscow right before meeting the US president. Biden, ending an intensive first foreign trip as president, arrived on Tuesday after summits with NATO and the European Union in Brussels, and a G7 summit in Britain.
Asked if he was ready for Putin, Biden smiled and said: “I’m always ready.”