Highlights: 'Stone face, rare eye contact'- Biden and Putin's historic summit

US president Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin met for a gruelling diplomatic face-off in Geneva that could last up to five hours. 

'It's always better to meet face to face,' Biden said as the two men sat down with their top diplomats, kicking off the summit, where ghosts of the Cold War hovered over modern-day US concerns about Russian cyberattacks and what the White House sees as a dangerous authoritarian drift.

First handshake

US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin shook hands in Geneva on Wednesday at the start of their first summit, with both men striking an upbeat tone.

The two men greeted each other after standing with their host, Swiss President Guy Parmelin, outside the La Grange villa overlooking Lake Geneva, where they are set to meet for up to five hours, with cyber-attacks, election meddling and rights abuses among the many contentious issues on the agenda.


'Always better to meet face to face'

While both of them seemed upbeat, an underlying tension was also visible on both the leaders' faces.

Putin thanked Biden "for your initiative to meet today."

"The US and Russian relations have a lot of issues accumulated that require the highest-level meeting," he said, adding: "I hope that our meeting will be productive."

Biden, who not only took the initiative for the summit itself but also for that first handshake, smiled and said: "It is always better to meet face to face".


Geneva: Recollection of Cold War summit

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.

But, would this be a similarly tense meet remains to be seen.

In contrast with 1985, tensions are less about strategic nuclear weapons and competing ideologies than what the Biden administration sees as an increasingly hostile, rule-breaking regime.


Underlying tensions

Biden smiled once as Putin spoke, but the leaders were largely stone-faced. The two exchanged rare eye contact, but Putin largely looked down and was slouched in his chair.

Biden, who had previously characterised Putin as a "killer", upgraded the Russian leader to a "tough" and "worthy adversary".

While, in Brussels after the NATO summit, Biden has previously said that while US is not looking for conflict, "we will respond if Russia continues its harmful activities".



Russian interference, US hegemony

From cyberattacks 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, came to the summit arguing that Moscow is simply challenging US hegemony, part of a bid to promote a so-called "multi-polar" world that has seen Russia draw close with the US's arguably even more powerful adversary China.


Journalists exit out of the meeting room

Sitting in the plush villa's renowned library, on either side of a globe and with their respective flags behind them, the two leaders exchanged a few cordial remarks before the accompanying journalists were asked to leave.

As the security personnel push journalists out of the room, the leaders are seen smiling and talking in the background.  


What do the experts say?

Body language expert Mary Civiello, who is based in New York, saw two leaders with a strong executive presence, authority and gravitas, but with two very different approaches.

"This isn't the first rodeo for either of them. Both of them looked confident, but they had different styles," Civiello said.


'Looked like he'd rather be anywhere else'

When the pair first greeted each other with a handshake, she noted that Biden had a small cordial smile, a sign he’s "willing to play ball," while Putin remained stony-faced.

"Putin looked like he was checking the box, like this was a forced march," Civiello said, observing that he "looked like he'd rather be anywhere else."

This same dynamic played out when the two leaders spoke inside.


What does the body language say

"When seated, Biden’s legs were facing slightly angled toward Putin, which is appropriate to someone who is open having a conversation,” Civiello said.

She noticed that Putin, on the other hand, was seated with his legs spread apart and straight ahead, a more aggressive posture that signals he is less open to conversing.

In Biden’s more open body language, she sees a more “winning and contemporary style".


Biden: Contemporary

In Biden’s more open body language, she sees a more “winning and contemporary style".

"Today, we want someone who will stand their ground and is tough but will also listen." Civiello said. "That idea plays well to Biden on this world stage."

(Picture: Kremlin.ru)


Putin: Dated

While the Russian president's approach seemed more dated, "Putin looks like he's stuck," she said. "I'm not sure that works as well today as it did even two years ago."

(Picture: Kremlin.ru)


Putin turns defensive on Navalny

While conducting a press conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin was asked a question about Alexei Navalny.

In response he said that the jailed Kremlin critic ignored the law when he went to Germany for treatment after a near-fatal poisoning attack last year.

"This person knew that he was breaking the law in Russia," Putin said after the summit meeting with US President Joe Biden in Geneva, in reference to Navalny violating the conditions of a suspended sentence.

Some might say that the Russian president appeared to turn a bit defensive while answering.


'We are back': Biden

US President Joe Biden said that discussions during his first summit with Vladimir Putin were "positive", but he warned his Russian counterpart that Washington would not tolerate interference in US democracy.

"The tone of the entire meeting... was good, positive," Biden told reporters after the summit in Geneva, stressing though that he "made it clear that we will not tolerate attempts to violate our democratic sovereignty or destabilise our democratic elections and we would respond."

Hinting at the previous administration of Donald Trump, Biden confidently declared 'we are back'.


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