Return to Transcripts main page

At This Hour

Soon: Biden & Putin Hold News Conferences After Talks End. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired June 16, 2021 - 11:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer.

And you're watching our special live CNN coverage from Geneva, Switzerland, the site of a truly high stakes summit between American President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Kate Bolduan in New York. Thank you so much for joining us for this very important moment. It's so wonderful to have Wolf there in Geneva as it all unfolds.

We have new images just in to CNN, a view inside the room where it is all happening, the American and Russian presidents staring each other down across the negotiating table.

You never want to reach too much into one photo, but when it comes to Putin and Biden sitting across from each other, you do. Biden and Putin are face to face for the first time as heads of state, shaking hands when they arrived and immediately down to business.

The presidents meet today at a time of very high tension and a low point in relations between the two countries. Hacking, arms control, the jailing of political dissidents, just some of the very big issues before them, Wolf.

BLITZER: Very big issues indeed. Happening now, the summit is still ongoing. The American and Russian sides already concluding the first phase of their meetings, a smaller session with less than a handful of officials.

The second phase, a larger meeting between the two delegations, is now underway. Once that concludes, both presidents will give separate, separate news conferences.

White House officials did not want to appear side by side with Putin. This just one example of how the personal dynamics here in Geneva are so important.

The two presidents clearly are not friends. Joe Biden believes, and has said so publicly, that Vladimir Putin is a killer without a soul.

CNN is live here in Geneva. We're covering this history making summit from every single angle.

Let's begin this hour's special coverage with chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward and chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto who is with us as well.

Clarissa, certainly a lot at stake right now, where we're waiting for the second larger meeting to break up. The first one went an hour and a half, the smaller session. This could go for a while.

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The first one went 93 minutes, a little longer than expected. This one, we don't know how long it will go. Certainly if it goes longer, there will be the hopes that some agreements are starting to be made.

It will be interesting to find out afterwards when the tough conversations were hard, when the uncomfortable conversations were had. Were they held in the smaller sessions with just Putin and Biden and their respective secretaries of state, or were they held in the larger format?

Certain issues that we expect to hear about in terms of dialogue, agreement, moving forward, making the relationship more predictable, as both sides are hopeful they'll be able to do. Climate change is one, potential prisoner swap between the two sides is another. Syria, Afghanistan, Iran.

There are a lot of areas where the two sides could come together, but certainly everyone has been very clear, the expectations are low. Russians say they're looking for a relationship that would be still hostile, but at least respectful, and, again, that key word, predictability, trying to get some element of predict predictability and avoid a situation where it degrades further.

BLITZER: The U.S./Russia relationship, Jim, clearly has been strained for a while. Cyberattacks, that's obviously a huge issue, Ukraine, Russian interference in U.S. elections in 2016 and 2020. There are a lot of problems in this relationship.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: No question. You might even use the word crisis to describe it because these issues reached such a crescendo, right, particularly cyberattacks, right? Cyberattacks in the U.S. that people watching right now might have felt the impact of, for instance, gas shortages based on this attack on the Colonial Pipeline. So, real divisions and not just tensions, but also consequences to the problems between the two of them.

And what's interesting about the words we keep hearing, the operative words of stability, predictability is that speaks as well to the urgency that both sides view these talks, that they felt they didn't need to get together, meet face to face and do so quickly so that they could attempt to at least pull themselves back from the precipice of some of these conflicts escalating to a point where you lose control.

Biden has spoken many times in his political career about the war you don't want, ending up in a situation where you escalate beyond what your intentions were initially. So, he's aware of that danger. Clearly, Putin is as well. And that appears why they chose to sit down. Whether they're able to accomplish that, achieve that greater stability, we don't know. But there's certainly an intent there.

BLITZER: And it's all business today for these two leaders, Clarissa. They're having smaller meetings, bigger meetings.


But they're not having dinner together or anything along those lines. It's strictly business, and that's deliberate.

WARD: It's very deliberate. It's both sides are going out of their way, primarily for their domestic audiences to emphasize, we're not friends, this isn't a reset, no one is going to hug it out here.

That's not what this is about. This isn't about trying to change the fundamental characterization of the relationship which is an adversarial one. What this is about is preventing the train from coming off the tracks, just pulling up the hand brake a little bit if you will.

And President Putin, you know, he has big parliamentary elections coming up. That last rap of sanctions targeting sovereign debt, that's a very clear warning shot to him. He has reasons as well for not wanting this to deteriorate further. He would also like to see some stability and predictability injected into things.

BLITZER: Our chief White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins is on the scene over there at the Villa La Grange, not far from where we are here in Geneva as well.

I understand you're getting new information, Kaitlan, as to what's going on in this session that's underway right now?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yeah. So, right now, Wolf, this is the second session of the meeting they had. They took a little break in between the first session that was basically a two-on-two with each having their top aide in the room. For President Biden, that was Secretary of State Tony Blinken.

Now, they're in the expanded meeting where there are six people from each delegation on each side. So, President Biden is only joined by his secretary of state, but also his national security adviser, one of his two Russian directors at the National Security Council, one official who is effectively the third ranking diplomat at the State Department who we should note also worked in the Obama administration, is well steeped in Ukraine affairs.

That seems to send a message to what they're talking about today. And, of course, there's a lot on the list of tensions for the topics that they have to discuss. Ukraine is just one of many of those.

And so, one thing that we do note from these photos, Wolf, as you can see the officials are now wearing earpieces. That allows for that simultaneous translation of the comments being made between both sides. So, it basically allows the conversation to move a lot faster than what we saw in the meeting earlier when it was President Biden and President Putin in the room and one would make remarks and the interpreter from the other side would translate it for them and then they'd react in a little bit of a delayed fashion.

And so, you're seating the meetings get under way. We're still waiting to find out if they've addressed the substances of their differences which is what the White House said they came here to do.

Reminder, this is a meeting President Biden initiated. He invited Putin to have this summit. They worked out the details for several months before actually coming out and confirming it because, of course, typically the negotiations between the Russian side and the U.S. side can go on for several weeks, and as it did with the format for today, it went on essentially up until the last minute.

One thing we should note about who is in the room for this, Wolf, several of the advisers you see sitting next to the Russian president are a lot of his inner circle closest aides, also present in Helsinki for the meeting with former President Trump in 2018. Of course, now, we have a new president. He has a new delegation and he is seeking to essentially establish a different kind of relationship with Russia, much different than what his predecessor had.

But I think the question here is what's confronting them are not just old challenges which are ones like nuclear arms control. That's something that President Biden has been dealing with since he was a senator in the late 1970s, but also new challenges facing them including cybersecurity and ransom attacks, not something you would have expected a decade or so ago.

And so, whether or not they actually move the ball on that is really a big question facing them. But we'll find out when they each hold their respective press conferences. I think the big question right now is how much longer these talks are going to go on.

We have not gotten an indication that this first meeting has ended. We're waiting for the second bigger meeting to actually happen. We'll get a good idea of what kind of progress the two sides are making in these talks. But we should remind our viewers, expectations are low, while tensions are high between these two sides.

BLITZER: Tensions are very high.

And very quickly, Kaitlan, do we know after they wrap up their actual discussions, which will have a press conference first, which will go second? Will they do it before their respective news media organizations at the same time?

COLLINS: Right now, we don't expect them to be at the same time. We have heard from White House officials who said they want President Putin to go first, so they can hear his version of what happened behind closed doors. President Biden can come out here and respond.

But, Wolf, just to give you a dynamic of where we are. We're in Villa La Grange. It is a park of several acres. And, of course, the only people in here are the two delegations from each side, the two press delegations from each side as well.


But we are separated. We are not with the Russian press corps. They're in a separate facility next to where they're going to have their press conference with Putin.

We're in a separate facility where we're going to have our press conference with President Biden and then the two leaders are somewhere in the middle at the villa having their actual talks. So, it is notable, if you want to get a sense of how separated these things are and what the expectation of the summit is really going to be, look at how they're keeping the two sides separate as opposed to what they did in Helsinki in 2018.

BLITZER: All right. Kaitlan, we're going to get back to you. Don't go too far away.

Our Moscow correspondent Matthew Chance is here in Geneva with all of us as well. He's inside the room where Putin will be holding his news conference.

Give us a sense of what you're hearing, Matthew.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN MOSCOW CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, that's right, Wolf. Here we are in the tent which is right next door to the Villa La Grange where the summit is taking place. Of course, it's where the Russian president will be staging his press conference.

Within the past few minutes, we've been brought in from outside, been told to take these spaced chairs in this auditorium. You can see quite a long way between the first row and the podium there, obviously where Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, will be coming out shortly.

We don't know when. That will depend, obviously, on when the summit finally concludes. We're not on that point yet.

We were told originally that they were aiming, excuse me, for a press conference at around about 6:00 local time. So, that's about 50 minutes from now. Obviously, that was always with the caveat that it was going to be flexible. Either earlier than that if the talks ended earlier or later if they went on unexpectedly.

In terms of the content of what's been discussed inside the villa between the two presidents, I mean, that kind of detail isn't coming to us here from this vantage point here that we've been monitoring. You now, that obviously, the broader format of the summit, which was preplanned and negotiated, has been under way.

What I'm not sure about and I don't know what Kaitlan Collins is hearing from her perspective, there's within a one-on-one between the two presidents without broader delegations. I suspect not. We certainly haven't heard about it from our vantage point here.

But, you know, make no mistake, whenever Vladimir Putin gives his press conference and talks about what was discussed in this first face-to-face summit between the two presidents, he's not going to be able to get around the fact that there are huge issues and disagreements between the two sides, whether it's about election meddling, hacking, cyberattacks, the situation in Ukraine, whether it's about the crackdown on opposition figures inside Russia.

And it's going to be really interesting to hear what was said to Vladimir Putin, first of all, in that summit by his U.S. counterpart and, of course, how he responded. And so, hopefully, we're going to get more clarity and detail on that in the hours ahead as this -- when this press conference finally happens, Wolf.

BLITZER: We, of course, will have live coverage of both of these news conferences following the substantive discussions. Matthew, I hope you get to ask a question to Putin as well.

You know, this is going to be significant, when we watch these news conferences. We'll have extensive live coverage of both of these news conferences. It's going to be interesting to see how they characterize what actually happened. Are they going to be upbeat? Are they going to be pessimistic? We're going to watch it very, very closely.

SCIUTTO: Yeah, you always have three stages of this summit. So, you have the expectations management going on, then you have the actual talks and then the spin room afterwards, right, where each will do their best to claim victory. Perhaps they will have shared victories here, we don't know. Perhaps you'll have something that they can both hold up and say we agree to this.

I do want to give one note based on who is in that room right now with Putin and Biden. It struck me one of the people on the list is the chief of general staff of the armed forces, a man named Valery Gerasimov. He's the architect of what's known as the Gerasimov doctrine, which is basically Russia's strategy of sort of war below the threshold of war, things like invading Ukraine, cyberattacks, that sort of thing. So, all the things that are at issue between the U.S. and Russia.

So, in the room is the man behind that strategy, carrying out that strategy, discussing. I'm sure it's something Biden and his team noticed.

Listen, if you're going to discuss those things, you need that person in the room. By the way, that's the person who's currently carrying out that Russian strategy and the one that so bristles the Biden administration.

BLITZER: As far as Ukraine is concern, the Russians, Putin and his associates, they believe this is a done deal. They control Crimea. They think it's part of Russia and it's over.

WARD: There is absolutely zero wiggle room for Russia on the issue of Ukraine. It's a non-starter. It's a conversation they don't want to have. It would be a deal breaker for them if NATO were, for example, to allow Ukraine to join.

[11:15:00] They see Ukraine as being part of ancient Rus, right? So, they don't see it as being a distinct and sovereign territorial area.

I think Jim hit on an interesting point, though, bringing up hybrid warfare, because this is a big part of what makes it so difficult to sit down at a summit like this and have this conversation because of it is just below the level of typical warfare and it's so easy to deny things, to obfuscate, to set up other actors to be responsible for things.

It makes it incredibly difficult to pin them down and have a real conversation about what's been happening.

BLITZER: We're just learning now, and this is breaking news, the bilateral meeting, the second session is now over. We don't know what's going to happen next. But it's significant we're now being told the second session is over, the bilateral meeting. I don't know if there's going to be a one-on-one or anything along those lines, but it looks like they're getting closer and closer to wrapping things up.

SCIUTTO: If it's the last session, and we don't know that, this would be shorter than the window they gave us. If they started about 7:30, it was 90 minutes for the first session. I believe they took a 45- minute break in between to digest. That would put this session around an hour, so less than advertised, which could be a sign.

That said, we don't know. They could have moved quickly or they could be planning to sit down again.

BLITZER: Or they might be taking a break and resuming the negotiations maybe with a different cast of characters.


WARD: It's impossible for us to know. We're obviously all sitting here on tenterhooks waiting to see what's going to come of this because there is so much suspense around the idea, any time you have a U.S. leader sitting down with President Vladimir Putin who when asked which great character from history he most identified with, said Peter the Great, who is the man who invaded the Caucasus, had a war in Ukraine, tightened the war over the state, the ultimate czar. He is -- as president Biden himself said, he is, quote, a worthy adversary. This is not going to be an easy meeting for any of the parties involved.

BLITZER: Let's go back to Kaitlan Collins, our chief White House correspondent.

Kaitlan, I don't know if you're getting any more news, it looks like the second broader session has wrapped up. We don't know what's happening next, unless you know.

COLLINS: We have a few more details actually, Wolf. So, this first -- or this is the second broader meeting. After that two-on-two between the two of them had come to an end, the second meeting started around 4:00. They were supposed to have two of the bigger meetings, one followed by another. But now, we're learning that second bigger meeting has ended at 5:05 local. That's about an hour of a meeting that they just had. But they are not going to have the second bigger session.

So, that means we could hear from the Russian leader soon given we do expect him to give his press conference first. So, that means they had the one summit -- one meeting where it was President Biden, President Putin, their top two aides including the Russian foreign minister and the secretary of state. Then they took a break and came into the room with other officials. Those are the pictures you saw a few moments ago where each delegation is seated across from each other.

And so, of course, the question is does this mean they made substance? Should we read into the fact the fact that we won't have a second bigger meeting as was initially on the schedule? That really remains to be seen. Matthew reporting that President Putin and the Russian side expected things to wrap up around 6:00 p.m. local. And so, we're waiting to see if we'll see the Russian president come out soon.

We should note that President Biden's car, the Beast, has been idling outside the villa for a few moments now. So, that could be an indication as well that they are expecting this to wrap up soon. And that means we are going to very soon hear from these leaders on their readouts of what just happened in that first meeting between President Biden and President Putin since taking office, Wolf.

BLITZER: If, in fact, they have wrapped up their conversations for the day and they're about to begin their respective news conferences, it would be a lot less than earlier expected. We are expecting four to five hours of actual talks. That's clearly going to not necessarily happen.

Is that right, Kaitlan?

COLLINS: Yeah, that would be correct. They essentially estimated four to five hours of these talks going on. They did get started around 1:30. Not too much later than the White House planned for this to start. They had been essentially back planning, a plan B that this could go later in case the Russian president showed up late.

But, surprisingly, he did show up on time which is not usually his character when meeting with other presidents. We're talking to the White House, and they say there's not going to be a second larger breakout session as initially expected. That would mean these talks would have wrapped after just two meetings, one with just the leaders essentially with one top aide in the room, and the second with the bigger delegations seated on each side of them.

And there would not be a third meeting as initially expected. So, that would mean the Russian president is going to come out to where Matthew Chance is standing out too far from here and give his readout of how things went.


BLITZER: And we'll have coverage, of course, of that. Jeff Zeleny is watching this unfold. He's not very far away.

What are you picking up, Jeff?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, what we are picking up as Kaitlan was reporting from Villa La Grange, that the sessions and the meetings and the summit does indeed appear to be over which is a little sooner than really any officials were expecting.

The specific time of this which, of course, will be recorded in history if these hold and they don't reconvene -- let's go through this -- 93 minutes for the first session. That was President Biden and Vladimir Putin one-on-one with their top envoy, secretary of state Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. So, 93 minutes for that.

The second session they said was 65 minutes for the second session, but a White House official is now telling pool reporters on the seen that it was actually just considered one meeting. It was not actually considered a second bilateral event.

So, we're going to have to get more information on that. I know Kaitlan and others on the team are working to get a greater understanding of this. The White House press office is saying now this is just one meeting.

But, Wolf, a bigger point here. Had the meeting gone longer today, there was more of a recognition that more of these issues perhaps could have been discussed. But again, this is a reminder of the expectation setting for all of this. This is the opening of a dialogue, in fact, a chance for President Biden to see if President Putin wanted to engage, if he detected some sense of a stable relationship.

We knew that Russia and president Putin were not going to give on many of these issues or find really any common ground. It was a sense of can they at least stabilize this deeply deteriorating relationship. That remains an open question.

And we'll likely see both leaders now explaining their own point of view, spinning, if you will, their own point of view here. But this certainly has quality several people, officials in the White House and frankly reporters off guard a bit that this ended as quickly.

We did see the motorcade, the presidential motorcade in front, and it had been repositioned. So that was a sense that perhaps things are wrapping up here. We will get more information as this goes on. We do know, Wolf -- sorry, go ahead.

BLITZER: No, no, I was going to say, just want to be precise. About 2 1/2 hours, an hour and a half for the first round, another hour, 65 minutes for the second round. A little more than 2 1/2 hours. That's a lot less than four to five hours that officials had been speculating these talks would go on.

Do we know for sure they're done for the day? Is that right, Jeff?

ZELENY: It does seem they're done for the day, Wolf. Just again, apologize for looking down here at our reporting, but a White House official is saying there was only one meeting and it was not split into two. So we're not exactly sure if that's semantics or what that means. This was expected to go on a bit longer.

We are not seeing any indications from either U.S. officials or hearing from Russian officials that these talks are expected to continue, that they're on some type of a break or something. That is not what it seems. It seems like the summit is, indeed, over and both leaders will come and present their cases.

Now, they may not be urgency. I was talking to White House officials earlier today and they say they want to digest this information. They did not have a communications person as part of the delegation. The White House press secretary or communications director, which was not true on the other side -- the Russian press secretary was in the delegation.

So no question the U.S. is going to digest this. So, this press conference is certainly not forthcoming. As far as our understanding is right now, Wolf, this summit is over, the sessions are over and, of course, we'll hear from them at some point here in Geneva.

But, certainly, Wolf, as you can see from your vantage point, I'm struck by the calm and utter quiet in the city. The city has been shut down. There's no traffic in this area. Things are very quiet with anticipation, of course, of what these leaders will say when they say it, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yeah, I got here on Sunday, and there's marked difference between what was going on then and clearly what's going on in Geneva right now for understandable security reasons.

Kaitlan Collins is getting more information for us.

What else are you learning, Kaitlan?

COLLINS: Well, Wolf, as of about five minutes ago, the Russians were still inside Villa La Grange where the meetings took place. Things are changing quickly, but that would give indication that both sides are still there. It's not clear where President Biden is going to hold -- while President Putin gives his press conference because he is expected to go first.

But, Wolf, when you look at the press conferences, that will give us a good readout of what happened in those meetings, how will the two sides spin their version of what went on behind closed doors?


The press not in the room.

And I think it could also give an indication of where these talks are going to go, because the White House said that is why President Biden wanted to have this summit, to take Putin's temperature, to see where the U.S. relationship is going to go and what it's going to look like under his tenure.

And so, if Putin comes out and is aggressive and uses his tone that he has just a few days ago in the first U.S. interview that he did, the first one he's done in three years where he denied that Russia had any connection to the ransomware hackings, he said there was no proof of election interference on their behalf, even though there was a lot of proof. He down played human rights abuses and, of course -- wouldn't even name Alexey Navalny, the opposition leader in jail right now in Russia.

So, the question is does he come out and use that tone? What does he say? The U.S. does have the advantage here of having Putin go first because they will be able to watch him go and then come out and give their version of what happened after having already listened to him.

And we do expect at that point that Putin is going to get back on his plane, go back to Sochi and we expect president Biden to get back on Air Force One tonight and return to Washington.

So, we're still waiting on that actual movement to happen. We are not seeing it here so far. Of course, the Russian delegation and the Russian press corps has already gathered in that room for their press conference. And so, we're still waiting for that, Wolf.

But, right now, we do know the talks have ended, the summit is over and now we're waiting on the press conferences.

BLITZER: And Jeff Zeleny is getting more details on it as well.

What else are you picking up, Jeff?

ZELENY: Wolf, as Kaitlan was reporting there we do have -- let us repeat this. A White House official is telling CNN that the summit is over. The summit has ended. The talks have concluded.

So, this ends the air of uncertainty, if there could be a break and going into more discussions. So, we do know now that the talks between President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin have indeed ended. It did not go the five hours we thought it would. It also appears to be in one session as opposed to two sessions.

So this is certainly a more abbreviated conversation than certainly both sides were advertising and indeed anticipating. So, again, now the waiting for how this will be explained, how this will be framed going forward.

But the summit has ended. Wolf, it is just, as you know, before noontime in Washington, talking to officials at the White House, they're watching this very carefully as well. It's just before the dinner hour here in the end of the late afternoon.

And Lake Geneva which is normally packed at this hour is empty, all closed down. There is anticipation of at some point, since the summit has ended, people will move on and Geneva can get back to its regular day.

But, for now at least, how both of these sides, how the Kremlin and how the White House explain really what both sides got out of this is so critical. We do know that President Putin has been elevated by having this meeting with President Biden. Now, of course, we'll be watching very carefully to see what the White House and President Biden say in terms of what this summit did for them if, in fact, anything at all -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yeah. As we know, President Putin after his news conference, he'll fly back to Russia. President Biden after his news conference will fly back to Washington and wrap things up.

You know, Clarissa, it's a lot shorter than we thought. They're saying it was one meeting. Well, first part with the secretary of state and foreign minister, the four of them. There was a broader part of the meeting when other officials came in.

If it was only a little bit more than 2-1/2 hours, that's a lot shorter than we thought. Let's not forget, Putin, while he understands English, he really doesn't speak English. They had to do everything through interpreters, Russian and English interpreters, and that sort of cuts the time in half really because you have to wait until each sentence is translated.

WARD: If you notice in the second picture we saw, they're wearing head pieces, indicating simultaneous translation. That might have saved some time. Frankly, let's go through some of the host of issues they're supposed to be hashing out, Ukraine, human rights, climate change, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, reinstating ambassadors. I mean, how --

BLITZER: Hold on a second. There we see President Biden getting into his limousine. He has wrapped up. He's leaving there. I assume he's going to go somewhere and wait until he has his news conference. There he is, the president of the United States. He has left that villa, Villa La Grange here in Geneva. He's going to be heading over some place.

I guess -- Clarissa and Jim, he's going to be consulting a little bit with his top aides right now. They're going to be coming up with a game plan, what they should tell the American people, indeed the world at this news conference.

WARD: And it's going to be very interesting to hear what they say, because as I just ran through that laundry list of issues, you're trying to imagine how it would be.