President Biden prepared long and hard for Wednesday’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, assembling a group of Russia experts — including former Trump officials who reportedly helped briefed the commander-in-chief to be ready ahead of the showdown.
According to Axios, a group of roughly a dozen experts briefed Biden, including Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council (NSC) official who testified in Trump’s first impeachment trial and several Obama-era officials.
Among the experts who also reportedly in on the summit preparation included Hill, Angela Stent, a former national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council, both former U.S Ambassadors to Russia under former President Obama — Michael McFaul and John Tefft.
Rose Gottenmiller, an arms control expert who was deputy secretary-general of NATO under Obama, and Eric Green, a career foreign service officer and the NSC’s senior director for Russia, were also present for the briefing.
As Biden becomes the fifth straight American president with whom Putin has met, the assembled experts wanted the U.S. president to be prepared for the Russian leader’s tactics and tricks by “drawing on the experience of officials with first-hand knowledge.” Putin has a well-known habit of turning discussions of Russia’s bad practices back on the United States and that the group “broadly” agreed that Biden should adopt blunt talk and leaving no doubt.
While the experts broadly agreed on the approach Biden should adopt, they were “outright disagreements” regarding recommending an approach. Some participants favored the option to engage with Russia, saying Biden should look into opportunities with Russia on issues such as “student exchanges and restoring diplomatic and consular positions.” In contrast, others argued for an approach conveying a “get-tough message.”
On Monday, Biden said Putin is “bright, he’s tough, and I have found that he is, as they say when we used to play ball, a worthy adversary.”
The participants also advised Biden not to hold a joint press conference with Putin after their summit or give him any opportunity to try to draw attention from the private conversations in public.
Following the summit, it was announced that there would be no joint press conference between the two leaders, avoiding the pressure of Biden speaking alongside an adversary in front of the press. The decision to not hold a joint press conference was something White House officials had also agreed and pushed to make it happen, as Russian officials otherwise wanted the joint press conference and pushed for such during negotiations about the summit.
“This is not a contest about who can do better in front of a press conference or try to embarrass each other,” Biden said on Sunday when explaining the decision.
Instead, the president will give a solo press conference, allowing Biden to avoid embarrassing moments with his infamous gaffes and stumbles.
Ahead of the summit, a senior Biden administration official told reporters they are “not expecting a big set of deliverables” from Wednesday talks.
Biden and Putin are expected to arrive at the meeting site in Geneva at 1 p.m. CET, 7 a.m. ET Wednesday. Their first meeting will contain four participants: Biden, Putin, U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, with each side having a translator. The meeting will then expand with five-member delegations on each side, in addition to Biden and Putin. Still, the senior administration officials didn’t reveal who would be the additional five participating in the U.S delegation.
The meetings could last four to five hours, or perhaps even longer, with the leaders are not expected to share a meal, so there will be “no breaking of bread,” the senior administration official said.
The senior US official noted that “nothing is off the table” in the private talks, which are expected to include the discussion of recent cyberattacks against Colonial Pipeline and JBS Foods linked to Russia, increasing Russian aggression towards Ukraine, human rights violations, and election interference.
“We expect this meeting to be candid and straightforward, and a solo press conference is the appropriate format to clearly communicate with the free press the topics that were raised in the meeting — both in terms of areas where we may agree and in areas where we have significant concerns,” a White House official said over the weekend.
However, Lavrov warned ahead of the talks that Putin is prepared to flip the script on Biden if he brings up any sensitive issues, such as human rights, including the fate of imprisoned Russian dissident Alexei Navalny.
“We are ready to talk; we have no taboo topics. We will discuss whatever we think is necessary. We will be ready to answer the questions that the American side will raise. This also applies to human rights,” Lavrov said at a press conference. “For example, we are following with interest the persecution of those persons who are accused of the riots on January 6 this year.”
A reporter asked Biden after arriving at Geneva on Tuesday whether he was ready for summit with Putin.
“I am always ready,” Biden answered.