Joe Biden agreed on Sunday with Vladimir Putin’s latest assessment that US-Russia relations are at their lowest point in years but insisted that while the two countries may have fundamental disagreements, “we are not looking for conflict”.
The US president also addressed the issues of autocracy versus democracy, the climate crisis, future pandemics and problems caused by his White House predecessor Donald Trump, while holding a press conference to mark the end of the G7 summit in the English county of Cornwall.
Overall, Biden said, the summit had been “extraordinarily collaborative and productive” and – in contrast to Trump’s divisive, hyper-nationalist approach – he declared: “America is back at the table.”
Biden had tea with Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle on Sunday, prior to leaving for a Nato summit in Brussels on Monday and a bilateral summit with the Russian president on Wednesday, in Switzerland.
Putin said in an interview on Friday that the US and Russia currently had “a bilateral relationship that has deteriorated to its lowest point in recent years”.
On Sunday, Biden agreed that relations were at a low point but indicated this was because of Russia’s conduct on matters ranging from human rights violations to election interference to tolerating criminal cyber-gangs in its region that have been holding US commercial and government entities to ransom by hacking their computer systems.
“I think he’s right, it’s a low point, and it depends on how he responds to … acting consistently with international norms, which in many cases he has not,” Biden said in his press conference.
Biden said he had told Putin, before he won the White House in 2020 by defeating Trump, whom Putin had supported in his 2016 shock win, that he would look at whether the Russian leader had been involved in trying to interfere with the latest US election.
“I checked it out, so I had access to all the intelligence. He was engaged in those activities, I did respond and made it clear that I’d respond again,” Biden said.
But he added that when they meet in Geneva this week he was “not looking for conflict” but to resolve “actions which we think are inconsistent with international norms”.
Biden added: “The bottom line is that I think the best way to deal with this is for he and I to meet, for he and I to have our discussion – I know you don’t doubt that I’ll be very straightforward with him about our concerns,” Biden said.
On the news that the two leaders have decided not to hold a joint press conference, but to hold separate briefings, Biden said: “This is not a contest about who can embarrass each other … did they shake hands, who spoke more.”
Biden has pledged to tackle the subject of organized cyber-gangs operating out of Russia and former Soviet territories, which have been increasing the number and scale of attacks using ransomware on US entities. But he acknowledged that, in terms of Putin changing his conduct, “autocrats have enormous power”.
Cyber-gangs, accused by the US of being harbored by Russia, have recently hacked companies such as the Colonial Pipeline company, which supplies petroleum products to the US east coast; the US’s largest meat-processing firm; and local government computer systems in Baltimore and Atlanta, demanding huge ransoms in cryptocurrency in return for unscrambling their systems.
On Sunday, Biden also agreed with a proposal by Putin that he would be ready to hand over cybercriminals from Russia if the US would do the same.
“Yes, if there are crimes committed against Russia and the people … are being harbored in the US. I think that’s progress,” Biden said.
He also said he hoped that better relations with Russia could lead to greater collaboration on addressing the climate crisis, which Biden called, with specific emphasis, “the existential problem facing humanity”.
Chuckling about Donald Trump, but not referring to his predecessor by name, Biden joked at how his G7 colleagues had remarked that now “the US leadership recognizes there is global warming”.
“I know that sounds silly, but we had a president who said it’s not a problem,” Biden said, referring to Trump’s frequent dismissal of human-caused climate change, leading him to take action against tackling it, including promoting coal and withdrawing the US from the Paris climate accords (which Biden rejoined after being elected).
And Biden pledged that the rich nations would help provide enough vaccines and the means to produce vaccines to poorer countries to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
He said he was satisfied with the G7 final communique’s language when it scolded China over human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region and in Hong Kong, and demanded a full investigation of the origins of the coronavirus.
Biden said he wanted to know whether the Covid-19 virus “was from the market place and a bat interfacing with other animals or whether it was an experiment gone awry in a lab”.
He emphasized that “we have to know” in order to be better prepared for future pandemics.
In the bigger geopolitical picture, Biden said: “We are in a contest, not with China per se, but with autocracies and whether democracies can compete with them in the 21st century,” saying younger generations would look back and ask did their forebears “step up” on this grand battle, adding: “I believe that to be the case.”
Biden will meet Nato leaders on Monday and positioned himself to shore up uncertainty after Trump frequently attacked the organization and undermined the US commitment to the central Article 5 tenet that an attack on one member is regarded as an attack on all.
Biden said that when the US was attacked on 9/11, “immediately, NATO supported us” and that Article 5 was “sacred”.
Reuters contributed reporting