President Joe Biden said that Russia’s Vladimir Putin was a “worthy adversary” but defended his plans to meet with him next week at a press conference Monday following the first day of a NATO summit in Brussels.
Speaking with journalists at a brief press conference, Mr Biden declined to preview what he would consider to be a successful meeting with the Russian leader while explaining that it was important for the US to confront its adversary regarding issues such as cyber crime and election interference.
“I have met with him. He’s bright. He’s tough. And I have found that he is…as they say when I used to play ball…a worthy adversary,” the president said.
Mr Biden’s comments came at the end of the first day of meetings with NATO allies including Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and ahead of his meeting with the Russian leader in Geneva.
Defending himself from repeated questions over the past week regarding whether it was too soon to meet Mr Putin, Mr Biden said Monday that every leader with whom he had spoken about the upcoming meeting had expressed their gratitude that Mr Biden was engaging with Russia so soon.
“There’s a consensus, and they thanked me for being willing to talk with them about the meeting and what I intended to do. So I haven’t seen any reluctance,” Mr Biden said, adding that “every one I’ve spoken to, private and publicly,” had encouraged him to go ahead with the meeting.
Asked by journalists how Mr Biden would approach Mr Putin, a former KGB operative whom the president famously dubbed a “killer” in an interview earlier this year, the president declined to “negotiate” with Russia in front of the world’s press ahead of the meeting while promising that he would confront Mr Putin on issues over which the two nations disagree.
His meeting with Mr Putin comes amid claims from the US intelligence community that Russian-based hackers were responsible for a recent wave of ransomware attacks targeting US entities, as well as the US’s assertion that Russia meddled in both the 2020 and 2016 presidential elections.
He also warned Mr Putin directly about potential harm to Alexei Navalny, a top critic of the Kremlin who has been imprisoned by Russian authorities over a probation violation since he returned to the country earlier this year after recovering from an assassination attempt in Germany.
“Navalny’s death would be another indication that Russia has little or no intention of abiding by basic fundamental human rights. It would be a tragedy. It would do nothing but hurt his relationships with the rest of the world, in my view, and with me,” Mr Biden said.
Asked by CNN’s Jeff Zeleny whether he stood by his assertion that Mr Putin was a “killer,” Mr Biden attempted to answer before taking a long pause, then saying: “In the past I think he has acknowledged…that there are things that he would do or that he did do.”
The two men are set to meet in Geneva next week. Russian officials including Mr Putin have continued to deny, in the face of repeated US accusations, involvement in the attempted assassination of Mr Navalny, the cyberattacks striking various US targets, or interference in the past two presidential elections.
The two nations also remain bitterly divided over Russia’s annexation of Crimea, a region of Ukraine, roughly a half-decade ago.
On Monday, Mr Biden was also asked about that issue and told reporters that Russia’s occupation of Ukrainian territory did not mean that Ukraine had no hope of joining NATO, a move that would likely draw the alliance close to conflict with Russia.
Mr Biden responded that Ukraine remained a partner of the US and said that his administration would continue helping Ukraine “resist Russian physical aggression” while adding that the country had more work to do fighting corruption before it could be admitted to the alliance.
“School’s out on that question. It remains to be seen,” he said.