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The Biden-Putin Talks Are Expected To Last Several Hours

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We'll go directly now to Geneva, Switzerland, where President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin are inside a stone mansion and expect to spend several hours together in a summit. We'll begin our coverage with All Things Considered co-host Mary Louise Kelly, who is there. Hey there, Mary Louise.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Hey there. Good morning from Geneva.

INSKEEP: What have you seen?

KELLY: Well, we have ourselves a summit. After all the days and hours of anticipation, we watched in this last hour or so as Vladimir Putin's plane touched down from Russia. They had the giant, you know, name Russia in Cyrillic on the plane, so there was no mistaking it. There was all this speculation as to whether he would be on time, whether he would keep President Biden waiting.

To my surprise, and I think many others, he rolled up pretty much right on time, within a minute of when he was supposed to - rolled in with his big motorcade, such an armada that you have to wonder if there are any vans left in Europe that - taking them all, between the delegations and the TV crews here. And then a few minutes later, maybe a couple of minutes late, but President Biden rolled up more or less on schedule too in an even bigger motorcade, maybe the biggest I have ever seen. And I say that as someone who lives in Washington and is no stranger to presidential motorcades.

And then we got the moment that everybody was watching. What would the body language be? They stood with the Swiss president between them at the front doors of Villa La Grange, that stone villa you just described where the talks are underway or about to get underway. And they shook hands. They smiled. The whole thing lasted about two seconds. They opened the doors and went inside.

And I should say, we're just starting to see - we're getting fed from the delegations a, I guess, pretty close to a live shot of the two presidents and their two top advisers. That's Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister of Russia, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. And they're sitting in a beautiful library, big globe between the two presidents, and looking at the cameras, not making small talk yet.

INSKEEP: A globe between the two presidents.

KELLY: Indeed.

INSKEEP: And of course, there was a time when the leaders of these two countries would dominate the world. Russia is in a somewhat different place these days, but it certainly demanded attention.

Stay with us. We're going to bring NPR's White House correspondent Scott Detrow into the conversation. Scott, good morning to you.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What does President Biden want from this summit as he sits there with Vladimir Putin and the globe?

DETROW: Well, it looks like he and President Putin have just started to speak to each other. I'm sure we will get that audio feed momentarily here at NPR. But that's exactly what this is about for Biden. It is about starting a conversation. The White House has made it clear they do not expect any grand agreements here. This is not going to be Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev saying, we want to rid the world of nuclear weapons. This is just about having a conversation after a very low point in the relationship between Russia and the United States. You've heard President Biden say over and over again, he wants a relationship that's stable and predictable.

He's also going to make it clear that the U.S. and the United States allies have some problems with Russia's actions over the last few years. Biden, of course, just came from a NATO summit. He came from a G7 summit. Earlier this week, he said he was going to take the shared views of all of those allies and present them to Vladimir Putin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I shared with our allies that I'll convey to - what I'll convey to President Putin, that I'm not looking for conflict with Russia, but that we will respond if Russia continues its harmful activities. And we will not fail to defend the transatlantic alliance or stand up for democratic values.

DETROW: And Biden has said he also thinks there's a few areas where Russia and the United States can be on the same page. One of those is climate change.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about the larger strategic situation here, though. We've already heard several times in the program today that the big focus for the United States, for this administration in the long term is China - a much bigger economy, much bigger country, building its military power, potential to change the world. Russia has been seen as a power in decline. But we had an analyst earlier in the program, Mary Louise Kelly, who said that that sends a message to Russia. If you want our attention, you need to cause a fuss. Moscow almost has a motivation to cause trouble. What does Putin want out of this summit?

KELLY: Oh, I mean, for Putin, it's interesting. What you just said, Scott Detrow, about the U.S. wants this to be a stable, predictable relationship - Russia says the same thing when you ask them, what is the goal? But I think their definition of stable and predictable is quite different, and especially on the cyber issue. I asked Fiona Hill, who was, of course, President Trump's top Russia adviser on the National Security Council. She has made a career of studying Vladimir Putin. She literally wrote the book on him. And I asked her, what does Putin want out of this?

FIONA HILL: Putin is mobilizing at home ahead of his own election season, and he's trying to explain to the Russian people why he, Vladimir Putin, should stay in power indefinitely. And it's because there's an external adversary, and who is that? That's the United States in their depiction.

KELLY: And I just want to note, we are still watching. We're inside a big press center here, Steve, in a tent across the street, a couple hundred yards from where the action is unfolding. But we can see what's going on inside this library. The two presidents are sitting about 5 feet apart. They appear to be smiling. They appear to be laughing. It also appears to be pretty awkward 'cause there's a whole bunch of TV crews in there, capturing all of this. So this is very much the prelude for the big talks.

And to your point, Scott Detrow, saying the U.S. is saying don't expect any big breakthroughs here - the Russians are telegraphing the same thing. I think the question is - this is not going to reframe, reset what is a very difficult relationship, but might these talks open the door to the next round of talks and the next one and finding some paths, some common ground between these two countries?

INSKEEP: Scott Detrow, when you talk with White House officials, do they seem optimistic even about that goal of stability? Never mind big agreements or big changes, just stability.

DETROW: I don't know if I would say that. They keep saying that's their goal. And I think a lot of allies - you know, Michael McFaul, a former Obama administration ambassador to Russia, has said, I think that they are wrong in hoping for a stable, predictable relationship. I just don't know if it's possible. The White House has said, though, that President Biden wants to have conversations, wants to be in the room. He is somebody who has decades and decades and decades of experience sitting in the room with people. And to him, that is the heart of international relations, is just one-on-one conversations.

So he's trying to have one right now, though this topic list - we could fill the rest of the hour of MORNING EDITION listing the topics of conversation. So I'm very curious how much time they're going to spend on enormous topics like, you know, nuclear stability, arms control, when there are so many other things to talk about, including, of course, these ongoing ransomware and cyber attacks coming, the White House has been very clear to say, from criminal organizations within Russia. That is something that has leapt to the top of the agenda for today, for the Biden administration, based on these high-profile hacks of late.

KELLY: Absolutely true.

INSKEEP: Mary Louise, give us the last glimpse of what you're seeing there and how the day will unfold.

KELLY: We are seeing the beginning of who knows how long these talks are going to be - four hours, five hours, less if they all go to hell, more if they're making some progress. We're waiting and watching, and they are underway here in Geneva at Villa La Grange.

INSKEEP: NPR's Mary Louise Kelly and Scott Detrow, thanks to you both.

DETROW: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.