Politico

Location, location, location: Picking a spot for Biden-Putin summit is a tricky task


Vienna? Maybe. Reykjavik? Not impossible. Helsinki? Umm…

As President Joe Biden and Russian leader Vladimir Putin prepare for a potential face-to-face meeting, their aides are trying to nail down the best location for what could prove a tense affair. They already have offers from several other countries eager to host. But they’re finding that — for reasons ranging from recent wars to the jaw-dropping performance of a certain former U.S. president — there are few ideal options.

“A lot of preparation goes into a meeting like this, and it’s also very choreographed,” said Julia Friedlander, a former White House National Security Council official. “If the goal of the Biden administration is to make sure that Russia understands the fundamental U.S. disapproval of its behavior, the organizers will be thinking of how history will view every aspect, including the venue.”

Hosting the summit brings bragging rights and the country selected becomes the center of international attention for at least 24 hours.

On Tuesday, Biden said that it is his “hope and expectation” to meet Putin when he travels to Europe in mid-June for meetings with the leaders of NATO, the G-7 and the European Union. Putin won’t be attending those events, but former U.S. officials and analysts say it makes sense for Biden to meet the Russian president somewhere nearby while he is in the neighborhood.

A White House spokesperson on Wednesday declined to go beyond Biden’s comments. An official with the Russian Embassy in Washington pointed to comments late last month from a Kremlin spokesperson, who noted that Russia had yet to formally agree to meet.

Already, some European governments have offered up their premier cities as potential venues, according to media reports. They include a trio of countries accustomed to hosting such gatherings: Switzerland, Finland and Austria. These three are considered, in broad terms, “neutral” venues: none of them are in the NATO military alliance, whose growth Putin has long seen as a threat to Russia and its sphere of influence.

Former U.S. officials and analysts say a dark horse candidate shouldn’t be ruled out. Among the possibilities: Reykjavik, the Icelandic capital; Prague, capital of the Czech Republic; Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia; and maybe, just maybe, the Azerbaijani capital, Baku.

Of the first three choices, Helsinki is probably least likely to be selected given what happened when then-President Donald Trump met Putin in the Finnish capital in 2018.

During that gathering, Trump lived up to his reputation as being too eager to please Putin when he appeared to accept Putin’s denials that Russia had interfered in the 2016 U.S. election. Trump tried to walk back his comments later, but the blowback was huge and bipartisan.

Going to Helsinki could, arguably, give Biden an opportunity to right a Trump wrong. But, some former U.S. officials and analysts said, the comparison with Trump would drive every narrative and overshadow the substance of what Biden and Putin hope to accomplish if they meet.

From the war in Ukraine to how to tackle climate change, the pair have a great deal to discuss. The U.S.-Russian relationship is not in a good place, and Moscow and Washington have taken a number of retaliatory measures against each other in recent months.

The White House has imposed a sanctions package on Russian officials and expelled several Russian diplomats; the Kremlin has responded with the expulsion of American diplomats and severely restricted whom the U.S. Embassy in Moscow can hire. Biden also recently agreed that Putin was a “killer”; Putin responded by ominously wishing Biden “good health.”

Still, Biden proposed the summit during a call with Putin last month, a nod to his belief that it’s best to maintain solid contact with a world power like Russia at a time when so many transnational threats require cooperation. Those threats include the coronavirus pandemic, whose prevalence in a potential host country also is likely to factor into the summit’s location.

Some U.S. officials and outside analysts say Iceland could be a potential venue. Iceland may be slightly trickier to reach than some of the other countries. There’s also the issue of it being a longtime NATO member. Plus, there is currently an active volcano spewing lava in an area visible from Reykjavik.

But it would not be Iceland’s first time hosting such an event. Reykjavik was the scene of a famous 1986 meeting between Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan. The men came close to reaching a major nuclear arms-control deal, and it was later seen as a key moment in the final years of the Cold War.

Baku would also be something of a trek, especially for the U.S. side. But while Azerbaijan has solid relations with both Washington and Moscow, and it would be an out-of-the-box choice, the odds are low that Biden would go there. One reason: last year’s brief war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

A Biden visit to Baku would likely offend Armenia, as well as many Armenian-Americans. Biden recently pleased many in that community by formally recognizing the Armenian genocide of the early 20th century.

In 2001, Slovenia hosted a summit between then-President George W. Bush and Putin, still a relatively new leader in Russia at the time. (The pair met multiple times, including in Slovakia.) In 2017, Slovenia offered to host Putin and Trump — noting that Trump’s wife, Melania, was born in Slovenia.

If it’s willing, the country may have a shot this time, but there’s a caveat: Slovenia joined NATO in 2004, and that may lower it on the Russians’ list. Still, Putin didn’t seem to mind that in 2017, when he welcomed the Slovenians’ offer to host him and Trump.

A U.S. official familiar with Russia issues said Putin doesn’t worry as much as the United States and the Europeans about where he will or won’t go. “He’s a drama queen and loves watching NATO and European Union countries fret about him visiting their territory,” the official said.

The Russian strongman showed up and danced in an Austrian vineyard during the 2018 wedding of that country’s then-foreign minister. The invitation to Putin, though described as a private matter, led some to question Austria’s loyalty to the European Union, which had condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Others who watch Russia closely said it’s more complicated than saying Putin will go anywhere. One Washington-based Russia analyst said it could come down to Putin’s history with each particular country, not simply whether or not it’s a NATO member.

Prague was the scene of a 2010 summit between then-President Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president at the time (who nonetheless operated in Putin’s shadow). Obama and Medvedev signed the New START arms control treaty during that gathering.

In mid-April, a Czech Republic official was reported to have offered to host Putin and Biden. But that invitation may no longer be in effect because relations between Prague and Moscow have since taken a nosedive.

The Czech Republic has expelled dozens of Russian diplomats after determining that new evidence showed Russia was behind an explosion at a Czech ammunition depot in 2014 that killed at least two people.

Russia has taken retaliatory measures, including reportedly placing the Czech Republic on a list of “unfriendly countries.” According to various Russian media accounts, the list includes the United States and several of Russia’s neighbors, such as Latvia and Estonia.

Daniel Fried, a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer whose many postings included being the ambassador to Poland, said Russian actions, from land invasions to cyberattacks, seem to be costing the country diplomatic space to maneuver — or to meet.

“They keep attacking people and pissing them off,” Fried said. “I’d rather have our problems than Putin’s.”

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