White House: ‘No substitute for face-to-face’ Putin summit despite doubts

The White House on Monday defended President Joe Biden’s upcoming summit with President Vladimir Putin of Russia — arguing it was important for the two leaders to meet face to face despite an apparent lack of deliverable policy objectives, broad doubts about Moscow’s trustworthiness and fresh concerns from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

At a White House press briefing, national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters that “it is hard, from our perspective, to find a better context for a meeting” between Biden and Putin than their planned summit on June 16 in Geneva — scheduled to take place on the final leg of Biden’s first foreign trip as president, which will also include meetings with American allies in the Group of Seven, NATO and the European Union.

Sullivan also rejected the notion that Biden was meeting Putin too early in his presidency, saying that “if you think about what we’ve dealt with from the outset on Russia, it’s been a busy time.” Sullivan specifically cited the extension of the New START nuclear nonproliferation treaty, U.S. sanctions on Russia for attempted election interference, Moscow’s SolarWinds espionage operation, a build-up of Russian troops on Ukraine’s border and a recent spate of ransomware cyberattacks with ties to Russia.

As for the in-person nature of Biden and Putin’s summit, Sullivan said there was “no substitute for face-to-face engagement in any dynamic,” regardless of world leader. But Putin, in particular, “is a singular kind of personalized leader,” Sullivan said, with “a highly personalized style of decision-making” that would make a phone conversation with Biden a less effective means of American diplomacy.

Immediately prior to facing the White House press corps, Sullivan said he had been in the Oval Office as Biden spoke on the phone with Zelensky, who had criticized Biden in an interview with Axios on Sunday for the administration’s waiving of sanctions related to the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany — which the State Department has described as a “Russian geopolitical project.”

Zelensky, in the interview, also urged Biden to meet with him before sitting down with Putin in Geneva. On Monday, Sullivan reported that Biden told Zelensky “that he looks forward to welcoming him to the White House … this summer, after he returns from Europe.” Biden also assured Zelensky he would “stand up firmly for Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and its aspirations” in the Putin summit, according to Sullivan.


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