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A Russian Journalist's Perspective On Putin-Biden Summit


I'm Mary Louise Kelly in Geneva, where some fresh street art has just appeared. Right in front of me is a big mural of Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Putin's imprisoned rival. He is smiling. And beside him in French is written (speaking French) - the hero of our time. Now, if this sounds familiar, this is because it looks really, really similar to graffiti that appeared in St. Petersburg in Russia in April. That one got painted over within hours, big yellow paint by workers who were called in.

This graffiti is part of the welcome that will be awaiting Putin when he arrives here in Geneva tomorrow. Here's another part.


KELLY: Across town in a big grassy park, dozens of Russian expats were out tonight waving anti-Putin signs. They say things like stop torture and give back Crimea.

MAXIM KRUGOFF: They shout, Putin is thief.

KELLY: In the crowd, we meet two graduate students, Maxim Krugoff (ph) and Irina Creyen (ph), both born in Russia, where Putin's been in power pretty much their whole lives.

IRINA CREYEN: The first time, when I was like 7, Putin was already present.

KRUGOFF: I was 3 when he was first elected. And he never left, actually.

KELLY: Both say things have gotten worse in Russia since they came to Switzerland, and they are worried Biden's summit with Putin won't help anything.

CREYEN: And, you know, for Biden to meet with Putin, in my eyes, it's some sort of enabling because he's considering him legitimate while Putin is killing people. And, you know, I'm sure that Biden wouldn't raise any of those concerns. Putin will just be like, yeah, yeah, you know, it's just not true. And that will be the end of it, you know.

KELLY: At the other side of the protest, we find Dmitry Lihanev (ph). He is 29, Russian citizen, came here to Geneva for work. He says he loves his country - his family's there, their history are there. But he says the current government has let people down, and that is why he says he's out tonight protesting.

DMITRY LIHANEV: Well, I guess I'm here simply because I want to have opportunity in the future to go back to my country.

KELLY: Lihanev says he is hopeful Biden can push Putin on human rights. It'll be better than under Trump, he says.

LIHANEV: At least there is a person in power who can communicate and express his political opinions towards Russia in a more consistent manner. With Trump, it wasn't that clear.

KELLY: Well, we wanted to hear how this summit is playing inside Russia, so we've called Vladimir Pozner, one of the Russian journalists who will be tracking the talks. Hey there, Welcome.

VLADIMIR POZNER: Well, it's my pleasure. Thank you very much.

KELLY: Well, let me start with asking, how closely is this summit being watched back in Russia? How big a deal is this?

POZNER: It's a very big deal. It's being watched by the entire nation. It's on television a whole lot. And it's something that people talk about when they sit down to have dinner. It's a very important item because, for the majority of Russians, the relationship with the United States has always been and remains important.

KELLY: The agenda - top of the agenda for the U.S., I think it's fair to say, is, is cyberattacks and hacking. What is top of the agenda for Russia?

POZNER: Lowering the level of animosity that clearly exists, lowering the tension between the two countries.

KELLY: Really? Because it seems like President Putin is doing everything he can to ratchet up the tension in the run-up to the summit.

POZNER: Well, it really depends how you look at it. If you're going to talk to President Putin from a position of strength, if you're going to tell him here's what you have to do, then it's hopeless. This is not a man who is going to bow or bend to any kind of pressure. It really depends on whether there is a mutual desire to somehow get out of the conundrum that we find ourselves in on both sides.

This relationship is not good for anyone. It's not good for Russia, not good for the United States. And at times, there have been even a little bit of an odor of powder, and I mean gunpowder. And I think that Russia's principal desire is to somehow lower the tension but not being dictated to or told what to do by anyone, including President Biden.

KELLY: President Putin gave an interview to NBC News in the run-up to the summit. He was asked about hacking against America, and he said this.


PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Through interpreter) Where is the evidence? Where is proof? It's becoming farcical.

KELLY: We've been accused of all kinds of things - election interference, cyberattacks and so forth. And then he said, not once, not once, not one time did they bother to produce any kind of evidence or proof. Vladimir Pozner, how do Biden and Putin get past talking past each other on this and other issues? Biden says cut out the hacking, Putin says cut out what? We're not doing anything.

POZNER: Well, that's probably the $64,000 question because they have been talking at each other instead of talking to and with each other. And the Russian side has steadfastly said, look, if you have the proof, produce it. Make it public. Show us and the rest of the world that, indeed, we have been involved in hacking and that this has been on the command of President Putin. If you can do that, fine. If you don't do it, then how can you accuse us of it? Which seems to me to be a logical way of doing things. So this somehow has to be resolved.

KELLY: I imagine U.S. intelligence would say, if we show you the proof, you might be able to figure out how we got it. And it will ruin our sources and methods to continue trying to figure out what you're up to.

I mentioned Alexei Navalny and the street art here in Geneva. Navalny, of course, is in prison. And Biden is expected to talk about that, to deliver something of a lecture tomorrow on human rights, on respecting your political opponents. How will that lecture be received?

POZNER: I don't think it will be received in any kind of pleasure, to say the least. I personally find that the treatment of Alexei Navalny by the Russian powers is unacceptable. I'm totally against it. And I'm not in jail, as I say that, as you may hear.

KELLY: Yes, happily.

POZNER: OK. Yes. He is probably the only opposition figure of any real weight in Russia. And the fact that he's in jail and that he's been condemned to - what is it? - three years in prison is in my opinion a farce that I do not accept.

KELLY: But Vladimir Putin is likely to counter these comments, this lecture from Joe Biden with what, by pointing to the - Americans' own political challenges?

POZNER: Well, that's what they always do, isn't it? You know, you do this, yes, but you do that. It goes all the way back to, whoa, what are you doing in Afghanistan? What were you doing in Vietnam? I don't think lecturing one or the other is a particularly productive way of approaching the situation. I think you have to do it to make the point at home that you've been tough, but it doesn't really help.

KELLY: So what are you watching for?

POZNER: I'm watching for a decision that we can and should work together on certain key issues - climate change, first and foremost. No. 2, tell the State Department and tell the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to start talking to each other because they have not been doing that for years. The very fact that President Biden and President Putin are meeting is in itself a positive thing. And I think you know as well as I do that there were not a few people on both sides who were and are against this kind of meeting.

KELLY: Vladimir Pozner. He's host of the TV program "Pozner" distributed on Russia's Channel One. Thank you.

POZNER: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.