GENEVA—President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to ease tensions during a high-profile summit, even as the Russian leader denied involvement in cyberattacks and Mr. Biden warned of significant consequences for future cyber-aggression or harm to jailed Russian dissident Alexei Navalny.
The summit, which took place in an 18th century villa overlooking Lake Geneva, came as both presidents have acknowledged that relations between the U.S. and Russia have reached a post-Cold War low in recent years. While the leaders expressed disagreements, they also offered measured assessments of each other, avoiding the heated rhetoric that has at times strained the bilateral relationship.
The summit yielded little tangible policy progress, but both leaders said they hoped it would set the stage for more cooperation over time. Mr. Biden said, however, he wasn’t confident Mr. Putin would change his behavior without pressure from the world’s democracies.
“This is not a kumbaya moment,” Mr. Biden said he told Mr. Putin. “But it’s clearly not in anybody’s interest, your country’s or mine, for us to be in a situation where we’re in another Cold War.”
Messrs. Biden and Putin met for roughly three hours total, with a break between the two sessions. They spoke at separate news conferences after the summit ended.
Mr. Biden said he was forceful with Mr. Putin about cybersecurity and human rights. The president said he presented Mr. Putin with a list of critical infrastructure that he said should be off limits to cyberattacks. The White House said it included the 16 industries that the U.S. government has for years designated as critical—such as energy and food and agriculture—that U.S. officials have said are vulnerable to potentially disruptive attacks like ransomware.
Mr. Biden also said he reminded Mr. Putin that the U.S. has significant cyber-capabilities, signaling that the U.S. is prepared to respond if Russia launches attacks.
Asked what would happen if Mr. Navalny—who was arrested and jailed earlier this year after returning to Moscow from Berlin, where he was receiving treatment for what Western officials called a poisoning attack—dies in Russian custody, Mr. Biden said, “I made it clear to him that the consequences of that will be devastating for Russia.”
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Mr. Putin played down Mr. Biden’s concerns. Although he said he agreed to start consultations with Mr. Biden on cybersecurity, he denied that Moscow was involved in any cyber-sabotage.
In response to a question about the cyberattack on the Colonial pipeline, which interrupted energy supplies on the U.S. East Coast and which intelligence officials say originated in Russia, Mr. Putin said: “Why Russia? We have to get rid of insinuations.”
And the Russian leader said Mr. Navalny knew he would be detained when he returned to Moscow, had broken the law and had to answer for his actions.
When pressed further on Moscow’s suppression of Russia’s opposition, Mr. Putin drew attention to racial tensions and political divisions in the U.S., seeking to paint the U.S. as unstable.
Mr. Biden laughed when told about Mr. Putin raising the pro-Trump Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. “That’s a ridiculous comparison,” he said.
Mr. Biden also raised the case of a pair of Americans who are imprisoned in Russia. The U.S. president said he was hopeful they would be released, but offered no other details on when or whether that might happen.
Mr. Putin said that he and Mr. Biden only briefly touched on the issue of Ukraine potentially joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Moscow, which recently alarmed NATO with a large buildup of troops on Ukraine’s border, has long said its western neighbor joining the alliance is a red line that shouldn’t be crossed.
Mr. Putin said the two leaders agreed that the basis for a settlement of the seven-year conflict between the government in Kyiv and Russian-backed separatists must be the Minsk agreement. The deal calls for the withdrawal of foreign-armed troops, returning the border with Russia to Ukrainian control and local elections in Ukraine’s breakaway Donbas region, which the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky opposes out of concern it would give Moscow a stronger foothold there.
A senior Biden administration official gave a different account of the conversation, saying Ukraine was among the areas where Messrs. Biden and Putin had clear differences. The official said there was discussion of “whether there might be grounds to actually try to unstick the Minsk process.”
Despite the disputes, Mr. Putin said he and Mr. Biden had agreed to return their respective ambassadors to their posts in an attempt to reduce tensions. Russia recalled its ambassador to the U.S. about three months ago, after Mr. Biden described Mr. Putin as a killer. Russia subsequently advised the U.S. ambassador in Moscow to return to Washington for consultations.
In a joint statement, the leaders said the two countries are planning what they called a strategic stability dialogue to lay the groundwork for arms control measures.
Mr. Putin also was complimentary of Mr. Biden, calling him an experienced statesman and a sensible partner for dialogue.
“I can say that he is a very constructive, balanced person, as I expected,” Mr. Putin said. “It seems to me that we generally spoke the same language. This doesn’t mean at all that we must necessarily look into the soul, into the eyes and swear in eternal love and friendship. Not at all, we are protecting the interests of our countries and peoples. These relations are primarily pragmatic.”
Mr. Biden gave Mr. Putin a crystal sculpture of an American bison and a pair of custom aviators, the U.S. president’s preferred eyewear.
Before the meeting started, the White House scrambled to respond to confusion over whether Mr. Biden suggested he trusted Mr. Putin. As reporters were brought into the room where Messrs. Biden and Putin were meeting, a U.S. journalist asked whether the two men trusted each other. Mr. Biden looked at the reporter and nodded affirmatively.
But the White House said Mr. Biden didn’t intend to indicate he trusted Mr. Putin. “I’m not confident he’ll change his behavior,” Mr. Biden said after the summit. “What will change their behavior is if the rest of the world reacts to them and it diminishes their standing in the world. I’m not confident of anything.”
The first session of the meeting included the two presidents and their top diplomats, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. They then moved into an expanded bilateral meeting that included senior officials from both sides.
Throughout his first visit overseas as president, meeting Group of Seven and European leaders and the U.S.’s partners at NATO, Mr. Biden has signaled that he wants to show that the U.S. and its allies won’t tolerate what it regards as provocative actions by the Kremlin and will counter the growing influence of autocratic powers.
Mr. Putin has expressed his interest in pursuing a dialogue with Mr. Biden, describing the American president as a more predictable leader than his predecessor, but has made clear that he won’t be cowed.
Mr. Biden has faced criticism from some Senate Republicans for giving Mr. Putin what they say is an undeserved audience during his first trip as U.S. president, pointing to a spate of cyberattacks from Russia-based hackers, the Kremlin’s treatment of its political opponents and a military buildup on the borders of Ukraine.
Senior Biden administration officials worked to carefully orchestrate the event to ensure that it doesn’t further elevate Mr. Putin on the world stage, and the U.S. president prepared for the meeting for days, U.S. officials said. Mr. Biden’s aides studied how Mr. Putin interacted with past presidents and they consulted U.S. experts on Russia who have served under presidents of both main political parties.
At a 2018 summit in Helsinki, then-President Donald Trump, standing next to Mr. Putin, cast doubt on the U.S. intelligence community’s finding that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. He later told reporters he meant to say: “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia” that had intruded in the U.S. election, not what he actually said: “I don’t see any reason why it would be Russia.”
During his long career in Washington, Mr. Biden, who chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has traveled extensively to Russia and other countries in the region, and met with Mr. Putin in 2011 while serving as vice president.
Mr. Biden was cautious about inflaming tensions with the Russian leader in the run-up to the meeting. He has previously described Mr. Putin as a killer who has no soul, but this week called him “a worthy adversary.”
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—Thomas Grove, Catherine Lucey and Alex Leary contributed to this article.
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