Return to Transcripts main page

Hala Gorani Tonight

Biden-Putin High-Stakes Meeting in Geneva; Israel Launches Airstrikes in Gaza. Aired 2:45-3p ET

Aired June 16, 2021 - 14:44   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

HALA GORANI, CNNI HOST: Hello and welcome. We continue our breaking news coverage. I'm Hala Gorani in London.

The highest stakes talks of Joe Biden's long political career have taken place in Geneva, Switzerland.

Across the table, Vladimir Putin, Russia's long-time leader. The meeting began with a handshake.


GORANI (voice-over): The two leaders, tense and stony-faced, giving very little away.

Next it was inside and a photo opportunity in a book-lined room with a globe in between. With both leaders a world away on both issues, the

symbolism was apt. Then it was meetings behind closed doors. We may never know exactly what was said.

But then they each appeared before cameras to give their side. President Putin saying there was no hostility and the meeting was constructive.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA (through translator): I don't think there was any kind of hostility. On the contrary, our meeting was obviously

a fundamental one. Many of our joint positions are divergent. But nevertheless I think both sides manifested determination to try and

understand each other and try and converge our positions. And I think it was very constructive.

GORANI (voice-over): The Russian leader was asked about cybersecurity, Ukraine and Alexei Navalny.

Next, it was President Biden, who said he told his Russian counterpart that America would always stand up for human rights and American democracy.

JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I told him that, unlike other countries, including Russia, we're uniquely a product of an idea.

You've heard me say this before again and again. But I'm going to keep saying it.

What is that idea?

We don't derive our rights from the government. We possess them because we're born, period. And we yield them to a government.

So the forum, I pointed out to him that that's why we're going to raise our concerns about cases like Alexei Navalny. I made it clear to President

Putin that we'll continue to raise issues of fundamental human rights.


GORANI: Well, although the meeting was shorter than expected, it still went on for a long time. And it's not hard to see why: hacking, Ukraine,

Alexei Navalny, election interference. And we heard a lot about these issues in both press conferences.

Let's take stock of all of this. Joining me now, Robin Wright, writer for "The New Yorker" and a distinguished fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Thanks for joining us.

What is your biggest takeaway today?

ROBIN WRIGHT, THE WILSON CENTER: Well, I think both men got a little bit of what they wanted in terms of their own political agendas. Biden came

away from his eight-day swing through Europe, meeting with allies, and Vladimir Putin as being the definitive global leader.

He has restored America's place in the world. And Vladimir Putin is showing that Russia is important on the global stage and he's recognized as an

important leader.

When it comes to substance, however, there wasn't very much. They've established an agenda. They have issues they want to talk about. But the

hard work now comes when their interagency teams have to get together and figure out ways to compromise.

It's clear that Vladimir Putin is not going to change his stripes. His ambitions will continue to be the same, whether in the practice of human

rights at home or regional aggression in places like Ukraine.

But so the hard work begins. And it's not clear that this -- that what follows this kind of positive atmospheric meeting will be as substantive as

I think many Americans had hoped.

GORANI: And Russia's economy is in shambles. COVID there is running rampant. You would think that Russia is in a much weaker position in a

bilateral with the President of the United States, Joe Biden.

Why is that not necessarily the case, when the two men meet face-to-face?

WRIGHT: Well, Russia is still one of the major global powers. Along with the United States, it has the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons.


WRIGHT: And Putin, through his aggression, has made clear that he intends to be a global player. He cannot be ignored.

GORANI: But is America, when it comes to the Middle East, for instance, did America allow Putin into those areas, into a breach perhaps that the

U.S. had decided it did not want to fill?

WRIGHT: In some places, yes, particularly in a place like Libya. But when it come to Syria, talking about opening a humanitarian corridor, the

reality is, Russia has a firmer grip on Syria than at any time in the 50 years that the Assad family has ruled the country.

It has established a military base, an air force base, a naval base, a military presence. The idea that the United States is going to get

something from the Russians on Syria is an illusion. Opening a humanitarian corridor is what the world has demanded and it's not much a concession by


GORANI: When asked by a reporter about the fate of Alexei Navalny and what the U.S. reaction would be if Navalny were to die in prison, he made it

clear to Putin that Russia would face significant consequences as a result of that.

What leverage does the U.S. still have with Russia?

WRIGHT: None, when it comes to human rights. Navalny may not die in prison but he may be there for the foreseeable future. Putin has masterfully

marginalized the opposition, not just with Navalny but by taking away the vote of people who supported the movement, describing it as an extremist

cult, making it difficult for dissidents to protest.

The United States has almost no leverage. They didn't even acknowledge that there would be the release of two Americans, former Marines, from Russian

prisons. When you think about how little of a concession that is, it shows how huge the challenges are ahead to have any influence on human rights.

GORANI: And we're putting the photos and names up of the Americans in Russian prisons and the Russians who are being held in the United States.

Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed are the two Americans that were discussed.

If the U.S. has very little leverage, what was the aim of this for Biden?

Who was he talking to, what was the strategic goal?

WRIGHT: I think the broader strategic goal is to put the United States back on the top of the global stage, setting the agenda, not just for

Americans but for the Western world. So I think that was the one thing that was really established here.

Biden is now acknowledged by all of our allies as the definer of the global agenda. So he won points that may strengthen his hand at home, certainly

elevate his image. But to do that, he also had to deal with the likes of Vladimir Putin.

And the danger is, down the road, there's not the kind of tangible deliverables that will enshrine this meeting as one of the most important

engagements with Russia, as past presidents have.

GORANI: Robin Wright, as always, a pleasure talking to you. Thanks for waiting until all of the press conferences were over. Thank you so much.

Violence across the Israel-Gaza border is escalating today in the first major flare-up since last month. Israel says it bombed Hamas military sites

overnight in response to incendiary balloons that sparked fires in southern Israel.

But the airstrikes didn't stop the balloon attacks, a form of protest against yesterday's march by Jewish extremists in Jerusalem. This video

shows masked Palestinians preparing the incendiary devices in Gaza.

CNN's Hadas Gold is with us from Jerusalem.

So talk to us about what happened exactly over the last 24 hours or so in terms of Israel's bombing of the Gaza Strip?

HADAS GOLD, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Tensions here are simmering. Clearly, it goes to show you how tense the situation is here and how

quickly it can escalate.

Yesterday, militants in Gaza sent over incendiary balloons, sometimes with attached explosive devices that are lit on fire.


GOLD: They float into Israeli territory, sometimes they explode, sometimes they light crops in fields on fire. In the past, Israel hasn't necessarily

responded to the balloons launching with airstrikes.

But overnight, that's what we saw. Israel air force launching airstrikes on what they say were Hamas military complexes. Palestinian media say there

were no casualties reported.

But it's a clear escalation in the response from Israel and it's a change from what my sources say came after that 11-day conflict in Gaza. Israeli

military and government officials say they'll no longer tolerate the balloons coming over.

The militants said they sent these partially in protest of the right-wing Jewish march that took place yesterday. It was supposed to take place last

month. But it was canceled at the last minute. It was rescheduled for Tuesday.

And part of what makes this so controversial is that it passes -- and these demonstrators celebrate right in front of Damascus gate. The marchers were

not allowed to actually pass through Damascus gate. But their presence is provocative.

While they were there, I was there, we heard them chanting things like "Jerusalem is our home," "Jerusalem is ours."

And some of them were chanting things like, "Death to Arabs." Then we heard threats from Hamas and now we see these balloons.

More balloons were launched today, so the big question will be, what will Israel's response be tonight?

Will we see more airstrikes?

This is a very big, new test for the new government just sworn in on Sunday.

GORANI: Hadas Gold, thanks very much.

Thanks for watching tonight. We've been covering this historic Biden-Putin summit in Switzerland. A lot was discussed. President Biden said in a news

conference after the meeting that he will always bring up human rights, that the relations between Russia and the U.S. should be, quote, "stable

and predictable," and that there is no substitute for face-to-face talks.

We'll see if those yield any tangible changes in the future. I'm Hala Gorani. Stay with CNN. QUEST MEANS BUSINESS is coming up next.