Speaking near the steamy banks of a shimmering lake in Switzerland, one president nonchalantly removed his jacket and spoke confidently about standing up to an adversary. The other held court in a bland, air-conditioned room where he sought to portray strength amid scrutiny of human rights abuses.
By abandoning the traditional joint press conference in favor of separate events, U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin accomplished important objectives following their summit on Wednesday. Biden was able to privately air objections with the Russian leader while preventing a scene in which he and Putin found themselves on equal footing. And Putin, at least for a few hours, captured much of the world’s attention.
Their back-to-back press conferences were an opportunity for both men to make policy commitments on issues including nuclear weapons. But the settings of the events, the side tangents the leaders indulged and the questions that inflamed their tempers also revealed how Biden and Putin see their roles and vulnerabilities. At times, they were both fatalistic in their assessments of the U.S.-Russian relationship.