Biden summit offer hailed in Moscow as win for Putin

With indications that work was already under way for a potential meeting in Finland, Russian officials were crowing that Moscow was finally being treated with the respect it deserves.

A combination of photos of US President Joe Biden on 15 March 2021 and Russian President Vladimir Putin on 6 March 2020. Picture: Eric BARADAT, Alexey NIKOLSKY/AFP/Sputnik

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - US President Joe Biden's invitation to Vladimir Putin to hold a summit was being hailed in Moscow Wednesday as a sign that Washington had blinked first in the showdown with Russia over Ukraine.

With indications that work was already under way for a potential meeting in Finland, Russian officials were crowing that Moscow was finally being treated with the respect it deserves.

"It was a very important step forward news on a global scale," said Konstantin Kosachev, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Russian parliament's upper house.

Biden offered to hold the summit on neutral ground during a call with Putin on Tuesday, as tensions between Russia and the West spiked over Ukraine.

A Russian troop build-up on the border with Ukraine - where Kiev's forces have been battling pro-Russian separatists since 2014 - had sparked widespread alarm and warnings from Nato.

In the call, Biden reiterated US support for Kiev's pro-Western government and urged Russia to "de-escalate tensions", but also offered to hold his first face-to-face talks with Putin on "the full range of issues facing the United States and Russia".

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday that the offer would be "studied", but Putin spoke quickly on Tuesday night with Finland's President Sauli Niinisto, who said in a statement that the two had discussed the call with Biden and "the planned meeting of the two presidents".

Finland hosted the last summit between Russian and US leaders in 2018, when Putin met with then-president Donald Trump.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev set the tone in his reaction to news of the talks, comparing the summit to his meetings with Ronald Reagan in Geneva and Reykjavik in the 1980s.

Others were also keen to frame it as a return to Cold War-era meetings of superpowers.

"The good news is... that the leaders of the two largest nuclear powers have confirmed their readiness to cooperate," Leonid Slutsky, the foreign affairs chief in Russia's lower house, told reporters.

JUST WHAT PUTIN CRAVES

Many emphasised that the call had been a US initiative and noted that the White House readout did not include criticism of Russia's rights record or the jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

"It was Biden who asked for yesterday's phone call, Biden called and Biden wanted to talk about a summit," pro-Kremlin talk show host Vladimir Solovyov said on his morning radio programme.

Referring to the US readout, he said: "200 words! But where are those on human rights? Not a word on gays in Chechnya, not a word on LGBT+ and especially not a single word on Navalny."

Even Kremlin opponents said the summit announcement was a win for Putin.

"A summit? What does the US need to talk about with Putin? It's just what Putin craves, a legitimising 1 on 1 with the US," Garry Kasparov, the Russian chess legend and outspoken Putin critic, wrote on Twitter.

Observers had said part of the reason for the rising tensions over Ukraine was that the Kremlin was testing Biden, who raised hackles in Russia last month by agreeing with a description of Putin as a "killer".

Putin hit back at the insult, saying "it takes one to know one", then invited Biden to hold an online discussion within days. Biden replied that the two would speak "at some point".

Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, said the Kremlin would see Biden's invitation now as an about-face.

"In Russia, the prospect of a meeting will be presented as a major achievement, and in a sense it is, because not long ago Biden said offensive things about Putin and, when asked to talk, said there was no time," he said.

Just hours after the call, Russian state news agency TASS was reporting that US ambassador to Moscow John Sullivan had been invited to the Kremlin for talks.

"The level of tension that has emerged over the past two weeks has already eased after Biden's call," Lukyanov said.

"The muscle-flexing around Ukraine will probably stop, because in any case no one needs military clashes there."

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