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Russia And U.S. Seek Stability At First Post-Trump Summit


My question for you, sir - who do you believe? That was a moment, perhaps the moment, from the last time a U.S. president held a summit with the president of Russia - Helsinki, 2018. And the question came from AP reporter Jonathan Lemire to then President Trump at the press conference at Finland's Presidential Palace.


JONATHAN LEMIRE: Just now, President Putin denied having anything to do with the election interference in 2016. Every U.S. intelligence agency has concluded that Russia did. My first question for you, sir, is who do you believe?

KELLY: Well, among the reporters gathered in Helsinki at the time, holding our breath, waiting to hear Trump's answer - me, NPR White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe and NPR Moscow correspondent Lucian Kim. With the next U.S.-Russia summit set for Geneva on June 16, the three of us decided to get back together to talk through what we're watching for. Ayesha's on the line now from the White House. Hey there.


KELLY: And Lucian from our Moscow bureau, hello to you.


KELLY: Hey. I'm going to let you kick us off, Lucian. What is the agenda for this Geneva summit as the Kremlin sees it?

KIM: Well, I think in one word, for the Kremlin, it's about normalizing relations with the United States. Four years ago, there were a lot of hopes here in Moscow that President Trump would herald a new age in bilateral relations. And what happened in reality was we had Trump sort of winking at Putin the whole time while Congress passed round after round of new sanctions against Russia. Relations have not been this bad since the Cold War.

The Kremlin has been downplaying expectations for the summit, saying it's not about signing any big deals, not to speak of some kind of reset in relations. For Vladimir Putin, this is about ending a downward spiral in relations and, quite frankly, reducing the risks of some sort of conflict. For the Kremlin, success would probably be as modest as an agreement on regular meetings between Russian and American diplomats.

KELLY: So the agenda for this summit is almost just to have a summit. That would be success in and of itself. Ayesha, how about the White House?

RASCOE: The White House has talked about a stable and predictable relationship with Russia. They do not want escalation. What they want is to be able to say, we can work with Russia on certain issues. On other issues where we are more concerned, whether it is obviously election interference or people within Russia engaging in hacking attacks and things of that nature, that they are willing to push back on Russia. But they want to be able to work on issues like Iran and North Korea and climate. And so that's what they are saying that they are willing to do.

I think there's also a bit of posturing in saying that the U.S. is not going to wink and nod at you, this is a new day and that there will be consequences for actions. But if Putin is willing to, you know, kind of toe the line, then the U.S. and Russia can work together where their interests align.

KELLY: Ayesha, you just used the words stable and predictable to describe what the Biden administration wants this relationship to look like. We'll note that has not been a hallmark - stability or predictability - of this relationship in past. But it prompts me to ask about the delegations, the teams that each country are going to send, because on the American side, it is, of course, totally different. I don't know that there's anybody from team Trump in Helsinki who will be there this time for team Biden in Geneva. On the Russian side, though, Lucian, very different. It's like the exact same lineup from Putin down.

KIM: Yeah, that's right. It's been almost the identical Russian team since at least the Obama administration. So on one hand, the Russian position on almost any issue is very well known. But on the other hand, let's not forget that the Biden team has borrowed heavily from the Obama administration, which the Russians, of course, have not forgotten. In fact, there's an expectation in Russia that the Biden administration is very negatively inclined toward the Kremlin, and that's all the more reason why Putin wants to sit down with Biden and sort of map out how they're going to manage relations in the coming four years.

KELLY: How important is this summit? Ayesha, Biden has made clear he wants to focus on problems here at home. He wants to focus on infrastructure and poverty and the pandemic. What are the stakes for President Biden in Geneva?

RASCOE: And not only does he want to focus on issues here, when it comes to foreign policy, he more wants to focus on China. He doesn't want Russia to be the main issue. So I think the stakes for Biden is, No. 1, this is his kind of first big hurrah on the international stage.

KELLY: Yeah, his first international trip as president.

RASCOE: His first international trip. He has to show that he is going to be able to stand up for the U.S. and for U.S. interests and that he is able to put forward a very clear narrative for what the U.S. wants and how they're going to get it. It will not be hard for him to show a difference between him and former President Trump. That meeting, as we all know, was notorious in its outcome and the way that Trump was talking with Putin, basically siding with Putin over U.S. intelligence. So it will not be difficult for Biden to take a tougher line, at least rhetorically, than Trump did and what Trump got in so much trouble for back home over the way he handled his interactions with Putin.

KELLY: Lucian, the stakes for Vladimir Putin?

KIM: Well, for Putin, no matter what his personal relationship is with any particular U.S. president, he lives for these summits. They put him in the spotlight and legitimize him as the leader of Russia, someone an American president thinks is worth meeting. I think in the U.S., people didn't quite appreciate the impact of an interview that Biden gave when he called Putin a killer.

KELLY: Oh, this was the ABC interview with George Stephanopoulos.

KIM: Exactly.


GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So you know Vladimir Putin. You think he's a killer?


STEPHANOPOULOS: So what price must he pay?

BIDEN: The price he's going to pay - well, you'll see shortly.

KELLY: So, Lucian, that went off like a bomb in Moscow?

KIM: Oh, yeah. And the Kremlin is portraying this upcoming summit as Biden trying to make up with Putin after that remark. As far as Putin is concerned, he's interested in using this summit to show his own people that the U.S. is paying attention to him. And Putin will also want to show his neighbors, Ukraine in particular, that he's on the same level as Biden and they're not.

KELLY: All right. Before I let you go, I want to ask each of you for one detail, one moment you're going to be watching for, and I will share mine. I'm remembering that in Helsinki, Putin was late. He made Trump wait, which a lot of people, including me, were wondering, is that a little power play going on there? Lucian, are you expecting more political theater in Geneva?

KIM: Yeah, I am. I agree with you that it was really telling that Putin was late for that meeting. I think in Geneva, it will be interesting to watch the body language. We know that Biden is a very touchy-feely politician. Obviously, he won't want to appear too chummy with Putin, especially after Trump. But, you know, is he capable of keeping a cool demeanor like Barack Obama?

KELLY: And, Ayesha, how about you?

RASCOE: I agree with both of you. But I'll also be looking to see, does Biden stick to the script? How on message is Biden going to be? We know that sometimes he can stray. And this is a big moment for him, and so I will be very interested to see if he does any sort of we didn't think he would say that, kind of unexpected moments. That's what I would be looking for.

KELLY: NPR White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe and Moscow correspondent Lucian Kim giving us a little taste of what to look for in Geneva, June 16. Thanks to you both.

RASCOE: Thank you.

KIM: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.