U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed on Wednesday to begin cybersecurity and arms control talks following their summit in Geneva.
However, their summit laid bare their deep discord on those issues, human rights and Ukraine.
In their first meeting since he took office in January, Biden pointedly asked Putin how he would feel if a ransomware attack hit Russia’s oil pipelines.
He was referencing the May shutdown of a pipeline that caused disruptions and panic-buying along the U.S. East Coast.
While Biden stressed that he did not make threats during the three-hour meeting, he said he outlined U.S. vital interests, including on cybersecurity, and made clear to Putin that the United States would respond if Russia infringed on those concerns.
Both men used careful pleasantries to describe their talks in a lakeside Swiss villa, with Putin calling them constructive and without hostility and Biden saying there was no substitute for face-to-face discussions.
They also agreed to send their ambassadors back to their capitals. Russia recalled its envoy after Biden said in March that he thought Putin was a “killer”, and the United States recalled its ambassador soon after.
Putin said on Wednesday that he had been satisfied by Biden’s explanation of the remark.
But there was no hiding their differences on issues such as human rights, where Biden said the consequences for Russia would be “devastating” if jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny died, or cyberspace, where Washington has demanded Moscow crack down on ransomware attacks emanating from Russian soil.
“I looked at him and said how would you feel if ransomware took on the pipelines from your oil fields? He said it would matter,” Biden told reporters at a solo news conference, itself an illustration of the tensions between the two nations.
“What happens if that ransomware outfit were sitting in Florida or Maine, and took action as I said, on their … single lifeline to their economy, oil? That’d be devastating,” he said, adding he could see the question’s impact on Russian officials.
The query referred to a cyberattack that closed the Colonial Pipeline Co system for several days in May, preventing millions of barrels of gasoline, diesel and jet fuel from flowing to the East Coast from the Gulf Coast.
Speaking to reporters before Biden, Putin dismissed U.S. concerns about Navalny, Russia’s increased military presence near Ukraine’s eastern border and U.S. suggestions that Russians were responsible for the cyberattacks on the United States.
He also suggested Washington was in no position to lecture Moscow on rights, batting away question about his crackdown on political rivals by saying he was trying to avoid the “disorder” of a popular movement such as Black Lives Matter.
“What we saw was disorder, disruption, violations of the law, etc. We feel sympathy for the United States of America, but we don’t want that to happen on our territory and we’ll do our utmost in order to not allow it to happen,” he said.
*Reuters via NAN