President Joe Biden had a few words of flattery for Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday, calling him “bright,” “tough” and “a worthy adversary,” just days before the two are set to meet face-to-face in Switzerland.
Biden also defended his decision to meet with the Russian leader so early in his presidency, a move critics have said sends the wrong message and instead rewards Putin after allegations of election interference, human rights abuses and cyberattacks. The president said while the media has been critical of the timing, he hasn’t spoken with a world leader who disagrees with the meeting.
“Every world leader here as a member of NATO that spoke today, and most of them mentioned it, thanked me for meeting with Putin now. Every single one that spoke. And I think there were probably about 10 or 12 that spoke to it, saying they were happy that I did that, that I was going to do that,” Biden told reporters at a news conference in Brussels. “And they thought it was thoroughly appropriate that I do, and I had discussions with them in the open about what they thought was important from their perspective.”
The president also stuck to the message he’s been relaying for days. He said he aims to find areas of cooperation with Putin, while also making it clear that if he acts “in a way he has in the past,” the U.S. will respond.
“I have met with him. He’s bright. He’s tough,” Biden said. “And I have found that he is a, as they used to say when I used to play ball, a worthy adversary.”
While Biden refused to show his hand Monday, when asked about concessions he‘d like Putin to make in their upcoming summit, he did issue a warning about opposition figure Alexei Navalny. If Navalny died in prison, Biden said, it would hurt Russia‘s relationship with the U.S. and the rest of the world. Putin has claimed he has no say over the matter.
“Navalny’s death would be another indication that Russia has little or no intention of abiding by basic fundamental human rights,” Biden said. “It would be a tragedy.”
Biden and Putin will meet in Geneva, Switzerland, on Wednesday before Biden gives his own news conferences after the meeting. The White House has pegged the meeting’s timing as an opportunity for Biden to listen to the concerns of America’s allies in NATO and the European Union ahead of the one-on-one.
Biden said at a news conference Sunday that he agreed with Putin’s recent assessment that U.S.-Russia relations were at a “low point.”
Reporters on Monday asked him about another segment of Putin’s NBC interview, in which the Russian president was asked about Biden’s assessment that he’s a killer. Putin laughed.
And when Biden was asked Monday if he still thinks Putin is a killer, he laughed, too.
“Well, look, he has made clear that — the answer is. I believe he is, in the past, essentially acknowledged that he was, there were certain things that he would do or he did do. But look, when I was asked that question on air, I answered it honestly,” Biden said.
“I don’t think it matters a whole lot in terms of this next meeting we’re about to have.”
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