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News Brief: U.S.-Russia Summit, Israel Strikes Hamas Targets

Jun 16, 2021
Originally published on June 16, 2021 8:36 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today, Joe Biden becomes the latest in a string of U.S. presidents to meet Russia's longtime ruler, Vladimir Putin.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

On one side of the room is a president who's effectively run Russia since the year 2000. On the other side is a veteran of half a century in the U.S. government, dating back to Cold War times. In a sense, Biden is not going into the room alone. He spent the days before this summit meeting with U.S. allies in part to coordinate their response to Russia.

INSKEEP: So whatever do the presidents have to talk about now? All Things Considered co-host Mary Louise Kelly was at a previous summit with Putin and a previous U.S. president, Donald Trump. She is in Geneva now. Welcome.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Well, good morning from Geneva.

INSKEEP: Or whatever it is there, whatever time zone you're in there.

KELLY: (Laughter) Six hours ahead of East Coast.

INSKEEP: Thank you. Thank you. How different is this summit? How does it feel compared to the last one?

KELLY: Oh, the whole backdrop is different. Yeah. I was remembering the eve of the last summit three years ago. You know, as we were all getting on planes, Mueller dropped these indictments, a dozen Russian military officers indicted on criminal charges. And, of course, the man at the center of the whole Mueller investigation was none other than Donald Trump, the guy who was then going to be sitting down across the negotiating table from Putin. So the drama of Helsinki was - I mean, it's hard to match.

President Biden here today, when he rolls up to Villa La Grange, which is a couple hundred feet right behind me, all locked up and barricaded, as you can imagine, he's going to be very intentionally setting a different tone - cut the drama, lower the tensions, no joint press conference. That said, the issues that divide these countries have not changed that much. It's still human rights. It's still Ukraine. It's still cyberattacks. I met a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, who served under President Obama, met him here and asked him, and he said don't expect any big breakthroughs.

MICHAEL MCFAUL: They're not going to trade barbs. And then Putin's going to say, hey, you're right, I'm leaving eastern Ukraine. Oh, yeah, Crimea, that was a mistake. Putin has never admitted to a mistake ever in 20 years of running that country. So that's not going to happen.

KELLY: So that points to Putin doesn't admit mistakes. Is he going to admit to anything that President Biden is going to accuse him of, whether it's cyber, whether it's, you know, jailing Alexei Navalny, et cetera?

INSKEEP: You said Villa La Grange. What kind of a place is that? What is the setting for this?

KELLY: It's this beautiful, huge villa. As I say, it's about 200 yards, maybe, over my shoulder. It's this 18th-century villa surrounded by a huge grassy park, which, right now, you can't get anywhere near to or as close as it is possible to get watching it across the road and watching to, you know, as the motorcades roll in.

INSKEEP: Well, let's bring another voice into the conversation. NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow is here in Washington. Scott, good morning to you.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What does the president, the president you cover, want out of the summit?

DETROW: You know, the White House really is making it clear over and over they are not expecting to come out of the summit with major agreements. This is mostly starting to repair a very badly damaged relationship, trying to just get the lines of communication going again. The phrase that President Biden keeps saying is a stable, predictable relationship with Russia. He, of course, just met with allies from the G-7 and NATO. And he says they are all going to be on the same page and he is going to present a message from all of them to Putin today.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I shared with our allies that I'll convey to - what I'll convey to President Putin. But I'm not looking for conflict with Russia, but that we will respond if Russia continues its harmful activities. And we will not fail to defend the trans-Atlantic alliance or stand up for democratic values.

DETROW: Biden, throughout his career, has been somebody who thinks that just getting in a room and talking to someone, restoring a personal relationship, that can help with all of the different tensions to figure out. I keep going back to this - you know, when Biden imposed new sanctions on Russia earlier this year, he called Putin to warn him first, to say it was coming. And in that same conversation of we are putting all these new sanctions on Russia, he said, by the way, we should meet face to face. We should hold this summit.

INSKEEP: And he wants to be predictable. And it sounds like that's why he was giving the warning there. But what does he have to say now that they are face to face? What's the most essential thing?

DETROW: You know, it's funny. Over the last month in the White House briefing room, it seemed like there was a new agenda item being added to the summit every day. They're definitely going to discuss cyberattacks and ransomware attacks that the White House has pinned on criminals operating within Russia. Of course, the election interference that Mary Louise mentioned, it hangs over this relationship. And to round it out, some big existential topics just to add it to the mix if there wasn't enough already - nuclear stability, arms control, climate change. And one more thing to mention - human rights, specifically the imprisonment of Alexei Navalny.

INSKEEP: So that's the point of view, then, of the president of the United States. Mary Louise, what about the president of Russia? What's he want out of this?

KELLY: I think that might be a little more complicated than the U.S. Scott, you just said Biden wants a stable, predictable relationship. He wants it with the president, Vladimir Putin, whose specialty is being unpredictable. I mean, I put the same question to Fiona Hill last night, who was President Trump's top Russia adviser at the White House. I said, what does Putin want out of this summit? And she said he's going to use it - he's talking to an international audience but also to Russians back home.

FIONA HILL: Putin is mobilizing at home ahead of his own election season, and he's trying to explain to the Russian people why he, Vladimir Putin, should stay in power indefinitely. And it's because there's an external adversary. And who is that? That's the United States in their depiction.

KELLY: She would use the term (speaking Russian) which I'm sure I'm not pronouncing entirely right, but Russian for the main enemy, the major enemy. And Putin needs the United States as an enemy. He needs a foil so he can tell Russians, I have kept you safe for more than two decades now. Only I can keep you safe. We have enemies abroad. And this is why we need to lock up Navalny. This is why we need thousands of troops on the border with Ukraine. That's the message he's trying to get across here.

INSKEEP: Scott Detrow, my sense is that President Biden doesn't view Russia as the main enemy or really the main problem long term facing the United States. He's more concerned about things like China. Is Russia just a distraction that the U.S. wants to get off to the side if they can?

DETROW: You know, I think that might be a blunt way to put it. And I think that's where the stability and predictability comes in. Biden does not want to be thinking and dealing with Russia all of the time. He has, of course, talked a lot about this global struggle between democracy and autocracy, as he puts it, and Russia is part of that conversation. But increasingly, almost every foreign policy decision and really domestic policy decision that Biden is making is centered around his view of needing to counter China around the world. China is the Biden focus, not Russia.

INSKEEP: Mary Louise Kelly, I'm going to give you the last word here. What are you watching for as this day unfolds where you are in Geneva?

KELLY: On the policy front, you know, Biden says he's going to deliver these stern warnings. Is there any indication that Putin is inclined to listen? And why would he? What leverage does the U.S. have here? So that's the policy front. On the little things, just - I'm remembering Helsinki. Putin was late. He made Biden wait. It was seen as this power play. And I am really curious. I was amused to see the agenda for today. The official schedule has Putin arriving here at the villa 10 minutes before Biden. So if anybody's going to be kept waiting, that will be Vladimir Putin this time.

INSKEEP: Well, we know that you'll be waiting outside to give us the news when you get it.

KELLY: Indeed.

INSKEEP: NPR's Mary Louise Kelly in Geneva, thanks to you.

KELLY: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And NPR's Scott Detrow in Washington. Scott, thanks.

DETROW: Of course.

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INSKEEP: Some other news now. Israel says its fighter jets hit Hamas targets in Gaza early today.

FADEL: These are the first airstrikes on the besieged Gaza Strip since an uneasy cease-fire last month ended an 11-day air war where Israel and Hamas traded missiles and rockets. At least 250 Palestinians and 13 Israeli residents were killed in that violence. These latest strikes are linked to rising tension after the so-called flag march that happened in Jerusalem on Tuesday.

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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Shouting in non-English language).

FADEL: And this comes just three days into the new Israeli coalition government's term.

INSKEEP: NPR's Deborah Amos is covering this from Jerusalem. Deb, always a pleasure to talk with you. Hi.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

INSKEEP: So this cease-fire from the recent war didn't last too long. What happened?

AMOS: Well, it's not actually done, the cease-fire, but the Israeli military did confirm the airstrikes and added, quote, "any scenario is possible, including the resumption of hostilities." So it does make the May shaky cease-fire even shakier. A Hamas spokesman also confirmed the strikes. There's no reports of casualties so far, but for civilians in Gaza, it was a really tough night. They're still reeling from that 11 days of airstrikes. There's hardly any progress on rebuilding. Israel and Egypt are blocking funds. So there's still disruptions to water, to electricity. There's piles of rubble. Life is very grim.

INSKEEP: It's always dangerous to ask what led up to something in the Middle East because there's so many decades of history. There's always a danger of leaving something out. So let's stipulate that. But let me ask, as best you can tell, what led up to this latest violence?

AMOS: Let's confine it to the last 24 hours. So - because tensions were rising all day yesterday because of this so-called flag march. It's right-wing nationalists. It was postponed twice. It went ahead yesterday, approved by the heads of new coalition government. It's a yearly event. It marks Israel's capture of East Jerusalem more than 50 years ago. Palestinian leaders see it as a provocation. They called for a day of rage. Israeli police dispersed Palestinian demonstrators with rubber bullets. Then Hamas threatened violence in response and floated these incendiary balloons that sparked fires along Israel's southern border. And then came the airstrikes. So it was retaliation for retaliation.

INSKEEP: OK. All of this happens just days after this new Israeli coalition government that you mentioned took power. What's it mean for them?

AMOS: So you could see ideological differences. The foreign minister, Yair Lapid, he's a centrist. He supported the march, but he condemned the chants of death to Arabs that some Israelis posted on social media. The first Palestinian politician in this coalition said the march was a wild provocation and should have been canceled. The idea here is airstrikes for the new Israeli coalition government, it's about deterrence. And in some ways, it's also about deterrence for the former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has railed against this new government. Reportedly, he has contempt for the new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, who was once his chief of staff. He hasn't moved out of the prime minister's official residence yet. He's even received international visitors there, including an American politician, Nikki Haley.

INSKEEP: Wow. Deborah, thanks so much.

AMOS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Deborah Amos is in Jerusalem today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.