President Joe Biden and Russian leader Vladimir Putin meet in Geneva on Wednesday amid a strained relationship between the United States and Russia that has further diverged over democratic values, claims by Washington that Moscow chaired a series brazen cyberattacks targeting the US government and private companies, and human rights. In the background: The alleged Kremlin is trying to mount an influence campaign to prevent Biden from becoming president, and before that, his interference in the 2016 election.
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, there have been several dozen US-Russian summits. Every US president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has met with Russian or Soviet leaders. These meetings focused on arms reductions, economic aid, democracy promotion and human rights.
Here are six significant peaks from WWII to today:
Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin: Wednesday’s meeting comes as Washington’s list of grievances with Moscow has widened and deepened. In addition to allegations of electoral interference, the United States believes the Kremlin or its proxies are behind a number of cyber attacks that have targeted private U.S. companies, federal agencies and departments, including the Pentagon and the State Department.
There are also fears that Russia’s treatment of its political opposition is worsening. A Moscow court recently ruled that an anti-corruption and pro-democracy organization led by jailed activist Alexei Navalny was an “extremist group”. Meanwhile, an American named Paul Whelan has been held in Russia for more than two years on allegations of espionage despite scant evidence.
Putin, meanwhile, could express his frustration with the United States if Biden expresses his clear support for more countries on Russia’s borders, especially Ukraine and Georgia, joining the NATO military alliance. Biden and Putin know each other and last met in person when Biden served in the Obama administration. And they don’t seem to like each other very much, as illustrated by their first meeting in 2011 and Biden said he told Putin, then Russian prime minister: “I don’t think you have a soul.”
Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin: Trump confused many Americans by constantly expressing his personal affinity and admiration for Putin at a time when the Russian leader was accused of interfering in the American democratic process in the 2016 presidential election. During his tenure, Trump also downplayed Russian actions in Ukraine, its contempt for human rights abuses and a growing body of evidence linking the Kremlin to cyber attacks against the interests of the United States and its allies.
When Trump and Putin met in the Finnish capital, the US leader contradicted the findings of his own intelligence agencies when he said he saw no reason for Russia to interfere in the vote. “President Putin says it’s not Russia. I see no reason why it would,” Trump said at a post-summit press conference.
Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin: “Candid, frank and pragmatic”, this is how Obama described his last big formal one-on-one meeting with Putin. Their meeting took place on the sidelines of a G-20 summit in China. Early in his presidency, Obama attempted to “reset” relations between the United States and Russia in the hope of cooperating on a range of issues ranging from missile defense to finding a breakthrough to end the war. a civil war in Syria.
But Russia’s territorial assaults in Ukraine, its growing crackdown on domestic political opponents, and a growing allegation that Moscow was seeking to interfere in the US presidential campaign cast a deep shadow on their discussions. This was illustrated by the icy looks the two gave each other in tense moments captured by photographers.
George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a good dialogue. I got a feel for his soul,” Bush said of his first meeting with the Russian leader, a former KGB. operative.
A few months later, in the aftermath of September 11, Putin was one of the first world leaders to reach out to Bush for practical support in the war on terror. Putin would later visit Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where they were riding in a van. The jokes didn’t last: Bush’s support for NATO enlargement angered Putin, who also opposed the 2003 US invasion of Iraq on the grounds that there was no evidence that Saddam Hussein had a large stockpile of nuclear weapons, as Washington claimed.
Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan: A few years earlier, Reagan had called the Soviet Union an “evil empire”. During this Cold War-era meeting, the two leaders discussed ways to bring nuclear weapons under control and foster improved international diplomatic relations. The Geneva summit was intended to announce a new understanding between the two superpowers. Gorbachev and Reagan had good chemistry, and the relationship seemed to be based on trust.
Franklin D. Roosevelt and Josef Stalin: The Yalta Conference at the Soviet Black Sea Resort saw the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union, joined by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, discuss ways to hasten the end of World War II and to prepare the ground for the reconstruction of Europe. Many historians now regard this conference as a defining moment that led to the Cold War because Stalin successfully argued for a post-war sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.
SOURCES: US Department of State Archives; former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul’s book “From Cold War to Hot Peace”; CIA Factbook, USA TODAY research