Heavy wooden bookcases lined with leather-bound tomes, Grecian-style urns stood atop them with busts of great thinkers positioned nearby: This is the room where Joe Biden will meet with Vladimir Putin later today.
The library of Villa de la Grange, an 18th century mansion in the Swiss city of Geneva, will host hours of talks between the two men accompanied only by their most senior foreign policy advisors and translators.
Among books including annuals of history and ancient languages, the pair are expected to discuss thorny issues including including Ukraine, cyber attacks and human rights at a time when relations between the two nuclear-armed adversaries are at their lowest point for years.
The villa has in the past played host to the likes of Pope Paul VI, who gave a speech on justice and peace to a crowd of some 70,000 in the grounds in 1969.
Geneva was also the city which hosted the first talks between presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 which led to arms control agreements between the US and Russia and kick-started better relations – an outcome that many will be hoping for, but few expecting, later on today.
The library of Villa de la Grange, in Geneva, will play host to hours of close talks between Joe Biden, Vladimir Putin, their closest advisors and translators as the pair meet face-to-face for the first time since BIden became president today
The library was created in the 19th century by businessman and intellectual Guillaume Favre and hosts a collection of books on subjects including history, literature and ancient languages
Following talks in the library, the men will move to a larger room nearby (pictured) where they will be joined by several more advisors to continue the discussions, before going their separate ways
The house and grounds are typically open to the public, but today are blocked off by a ring of steel fences topped with barbed wire and are crowded by security and press instead
The day is due to begin around 1pm local time (11am GMT) when Putin and Biden will arrive separately at the villa – built by ship-owner and merchant Francois Favre – which is set in a 30-acre park in the centre of Geneva.
Putin will arrive first, followed by Biden, where the two men will shake hands with Swiss president Guy Parmelin who is expected to offer opening remarks. Biden and Putin are not expected to make comments.
The meeting will then progress to the library, which was created in the 19th century by Favre’s son Guillaume – a businessman and intellectual who was active in scholarly circles around the time of the French Revolution.
There, Putin and Biden will have closed-door discussions on thorny subjects including Russia’s annexation of Crimea, cyber attacks that the US blames on Moscow, the jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny and the recent hijack of a Ryanair jet over Russia’s close ally Belarus.
Joining Putin and Biden in that meeting will be Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. That will be followed by the larger gathering before the two sides part ways, with Putin and Biden offering their views of one-another separately.
Their remarks will be heavily scrutinised after the two men exchanged barbs at a distance earlier this year.
Biden infuriated Moscow by agreeing with the description of Putin as ‘a killer’, before the Russian president quipped back that it ‘takes one to know one.’
There is little expectation of warmth between the two men today – with Biden striking an icy tone ahead of time – but it is hoped they will come to a better understanding of one-another.
The villa traces it origins back to the 1660s when the park in which it is placed were created. A house built by the wealthy Lullin banking family was then transformed into its modern state by the Favre family in the 18th century
An armored personnel carrier of the Swiss police blocks an entrance to Villa La Grange, venue of today’s summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin
A police officer looks through a binoculars to guard the area in front of the ‘Villa la Grange’ ahead of the meeting of US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin
A Swiss policeman patrol with a dog in front of Villa La Grange in Geneva, Switzerland
Swiss police officers keep watch over a bridge near Geneva Lake early June 16, 2021, in Geneva, Switzerland. U.S. President Joe Biden is planning to meet Russian President Putin in Geneva today
Biden sees himself with few peers on foreign policy. He traveled the globe as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and was given difficult foreign policy assignments by President Barack Obama when Biden was vice president.
His portfolio included messy spots like Iraq and Ukraine and weighing the mettle of China’s Xi Jinping during his rise to power.
He has repeatedly said that he believes executing effective foreign policy comes from forming strong personal relations, and he has managed to find rapport with both the likes of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom Biden has labeled an ‘autocrat,’ and conventional politicians like Canada’s Justin Trudeau.
But with Putin, whom the president has said is a ‘killer’ and has ‘no soul,’ Biden has long been wary.
At the same time, he acknowledges that Putin, who remained the most powerful figure in Russian politics over the span of five U.S. presidents, is not without talent. Biden this week suggested that he is approaching his meeting with Putin carefully.
‘He’s bright. He’s tough,’ Biden told reporters. ‘And I have found that he is a – as they say…a worthy adversary.’
There are hopes of finding small areas of agreement.
No commitments have been made, but according to the senior administration official, there are hopes that both sides will return their ambassadors to their respective postings following the meeting.
Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Antonov, was recalled from Washington about three months ago after Biden called Putin a killer; U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan left Moscow almost two months ago, after Russia suggested he return to Washington for consultations.
Both ambassadors will be in Geneva during Wednesday’s meeting.
Relations between the US and Russia are at their lowest point in years with Biden (left) and Putin (right) exchanging barbs at a distance earlier this year. Few expect any warmth at today’s summit, but hope the two sides can still reach agreements
Rolling out the red carpet: A cleaner gives the entrance to the villa one last go-over with a hoover before the Russian and American delegations arrive for today’s summit
A member of the Russia delegation arrives at the villa ahead of Putin, who is expected to get their first, followed by Biden
Members of the media sit outside the villa, where they will witness Putin and Biden arrive, shake hands with Swiss president Guy Parmelin and then sit down for talks
Russian and American flags line the waterfront of Lake Geneva, just a short distance from where the summit will take place
Biden administration officials say they think common ground can be found on arms control. International arms control groups are pressing the Russian and American leaders to start a push for new arms control by holding ‘strategic stability’ talks – a series of government-to-government discussions meant to sort through the many areas of disagreement and tension on the national security front.
The Biden team will press its concerns on cybersecurity. In recent months, Russia-based hackers have launched crippling attacks on a major U.S. oil pipeline and a Brazil-headquartered meat supplier that operates in the U.S.
The Russian side has said that the imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is an internal political matter and one area where Putin won’t engage Biden.
But the senior Biden administration official said there ‘is no issue that is off the table for the president,’ suggesting Navalny will come up.
The meeting is sure to invite comparisons with President Donald Trump’s 2018 meeting with Putin in Helsinki, where the two leaders held a joint news conference and Trump sided with Russian denials when asked whether Moscow had meddled in the 2016 presidential election.
Biden has prepared for his one-on-one by reviewing materials and consulting with officials across government and with outside advisers.
Aides said the level of preparation wasn’t unusual. Biden, in a brief exchange with reporters upon arriving in Geneva on Tuesday night, sought to offer the impression that he wasn’t sweating his big meeting.
‘I am always ready,’ Biden said.