President Joe Biden and Russia’s Vladimir Putin are slated to attend next month’s G-20 summit in Indonesia, setting up the possibility of a high-stakes face off in the midst of an increasingly deadly Moscow invasion of Ukraine.
U.S. officials are taking steps to ensure that doesn’t happen.
Biden last week opened the door to meeting Putin at the summit for a chance to negotiate the freedom of American prisoners, including WNBA star Brittney Griner. But there are no discussions underway with the Kremlin to make a deal happen and that seems unlikely to change, according to multiple administration officials not authorized to publicly discuss private negotiations.
It can’t be ruled out that Biden and Putin might cross paths at some point during the November summit, according to officials who note that the two men may, at some point, attend the same large plenary gathering. But U.S. officials have ruled out a formal meeting and are taking steps to ensure that the American president does not encounter his Russian counterpart in a hallway or even in a leaders’ group photo.
“We know what President Biden thinks about President Putin: he thinks he’s a killer, he thinks he’s a war criminal,” said William Taylor, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine. “You don’t usually meet with killers and war criminals.”
The pair have only met once during Biden’s presidency, a summit in Geneva in the summer of 2021. As Russia subsequently threatened to invade Ukraine, the two men spoke several times — the last of which was in February, just days before the war began.
The G-20 summit, to be held along Bali’s beautiful beaches, will be the most anticipated multinational gathering in years, coming as the war has tested Europe and strained economies to the brink of recession. Unlike the G-7, which is exclusively made up of wealthy democracies, the G-20 also includes several autocracies. Not all the nations in attendance are expected to rally around Ukraine like European countries have done (though even that alliance is straining, as a Putin-sympathetic government takes over in Italy).
That’s raised logistical challenges for the White House. While Biden plans to avoid Putin,talks have quietly begun between senior aides in Washington and Beijing for the G-20 to host the first in-person summit between the president and China’s Xi Jinping, officials said. Normally, the initial encounter between the leaders of the world’s two main superpowers would be a headlining event — but Putin stands poised to steal the international spotlight.
The White House has held internal discussions for weeks about Putin’s possible attendance after Indonesian officials announced that the Russian leader would make a rare international trip there. There has been little disagreement within the West Wing about the conclusion that Biden should not meet Putin. But foreign policy experts have been more divided.
Ret. Admiral James Stavridis, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, said that if he were advising the president, he’d urge him to take the meeting.
“He should lead with pushing for Griner’s release but also take advantage of the moment to look Putin in the eye,” said Stavridis, “and you tell him that ‘you are losing and you are on a collision course with destiny and it’s not going to come out well for you.’”
Both of Biden’s immediate predecessors — Barack Obama and Donald Trump — crafted foreign policies that involved direct engagement with traditionally adversarial leaders; Obama as a matter of bridging difficult diplomatic divides, Trump as part creating personal and political alliances. Biden has had less engagement abroad. But in addition to meeting Putin previously, he also spoke directly with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, despite pledging to turn the nation into a pariah.
The success of those meetings has been limited. Saudi Arabia recently defied U.S. entreaties to keep hold off on cuts to oil production, and a White House official said it was “highly unlikely” that Biden would meet again with the crown prince, who is also slated to travel to Indonesia.
Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, recalled it was just a few months after Putin and Biden met in Geneva that Moscow began massing troops near the Ukrainian border. McFaul said he worried about a similar escalation should Biden meet with Putin again.
“It’s a hard call. During times of crisis, channels of communication are important,” said McFaul. “But the problem of meeting is legitimizing him. You give Putin a platform to claim whatever he wants.”
From the early days of the war, the United States has stressed that any negotiations with the Russians to end its invasion must involve the Ukrainians. And while diplomatic circles have buzzed for weeks about the possibility of a surprise visit to Bali by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, U.S. officials downplayed the chance, believing that he may appear via video instead.
Biden had said publicly that he wouldn’t meet with Putin but he made the matter murky last week.
“Look, I have no intention of meeting with him,” Biden said during an interview with CNN. “But for example, if he came to me at the G-20 and said, ‘I want to talk about the release of Griner,’ I’d meet with him. I mean, it would depend.”
The White House has since publicly clarified that he has “no intention” of meeting with Putin. But privately, officials concede that if a deal was at hand to free Griner, the basketball star sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison for drug possession, or Paul Whelan, a former Marine serving 16 years on espionage charges, Biden would potentially hold a meeting.
Officials stressed that such a meeting would only occur after weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiations with Moscow, assuring that the deal would be essentially completed before the leaders sat across from each other in Bali. Currently, there are no plans to have such talks, though U.S. officials said the door is open to do so.
The sort of welcome Putin will receive in Indonesia remains an international guessing game. U.S. officials believe that most Western heads of state will follow Biden’s lead and snub the Russian leader, though various European leaders — namely French President Emmanuel Macron — have at various times talked to Putin in an effort to get him to abandon his war.
But it is also not clear what sort of response Putin will get from Xi, who in February pledged support for Russia but has since signaled his disapproval for the state of the war and Moscow’s nuclear threats over it.
U.S. and Chinese officials, meanwhile, have been quietly working to set up a meeting between Xi and Biden, though it has not yet been announced and officials concede that it could still collapse.
Biden has long defined the 21st century as a rivalry between the U.S. and China and his agenda for a meeting with Xi would likely be lengthy, including economic warnings to Beijing as well as a broadside to not try to seize Taiwan. He also could use the meeting to push Xi to further isolate Putin, officials said.
“Deliver the message to Xi: ‘You are judged by the people with whom you keep company,’” Stavridis said. “Xi might be the one man who can push Putin to stop.”
Biden will depart for Asia the day after the midterm elections, with the balance of power in Congress perhaps not yet known. His first stop on the continent will be a summit of Southeast Asian nations being held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, before traveling to Indonesia. Many of the world leaders will then move on to another Pacific States summit in Bangkok, but Biden will return to Washington for the White House wedding of his granddaughter Naomi.
There will be no shortage of subplots at the G-20.
U.K. Prime Minister Liz Truss, embroiled in an economic disaster largely of her own making, has faced growing calls to resign after only a few weeks in office. Brazil’s populist president Jair Bolsonaro will face a runoff election at the end of October and could attend as a lame duck — though he has made no promises to accept the results of the election were he to lose. And it could be the first international summit for Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, the first far right candidate to be elected there since World War II.
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