At the Biden-Putin summit, it was the US president who almost lost his cool

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The Russian president was unruffled by aggressive questioning - AFP

The Russian president was unruffled by aggressive questioning – AFP

Vladimir Putin has seen US presidents come and go in the past 22 years.

Joe Biden was the fifth incumbent of the White House to hold talks with Mr Putin in his capacity as Russian president or prime minister.

In short, Mr Putin is something of a seasoned summit veteran and at times it showed.

Given the parlous state of relations between Russia and America, he could arguably claim that holding a summit so early in the Biden presidency was a victory in itself.

Mr Putin’s press conference went remarkably smoothly, putting the Russian leader firmly back on the world stage, appearing unruffled by some fierce questioning.

Where necessary he proferred a diplomatic olive branch, indicating, for example, that a prisoner swap might be possible.

But there was no giving ground on issues like cyberattacks on US targets and the Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny.

Joe Biden’s press conference ended on a more tetchy note, with the US president snapping at CNN’s Kaitlan Collins who had the temerity to ask him whether he was confident that Mr Putin would change his behaviour.

Turning back and walking toward the reporter with his finger raised, Mr Biden said: ‘I’m not confident he’ll change his behaviour. What the hell do you do all the time? When did I say I was confident. Let’s get it straight.”

Ms Collins, then asked why he thought the meeting had been “constructive”.

Mr Biden said “If you don’t understand that you’re in the wrong business” and walked away. The president later said he had apologised to Ms Collins, adding: “I shouldn’t have been such a wise guy.”

Still, the optics of a US president swivelling around and jabbing a finger at a journalist were lousy.

This though was a rare discordant note in Geneva, with the only other frisson being some ill-tempered jostling between reporters and security guards, much to the bemusement of the two leaders.

Fortunately, the talks between Mr Biden and Mr Putin appear to have been rather more relaxed than had been predicted.

Admittedly, the bar had been set pretty low.

But given Mr Biden’s decades of political experience, there was no chance of him embarrassing himself or the US.

There was no repetition of JFK’s disastrous 1961 Vienna summit with Nikita Kruschev in which the Russian leader concluded that the inadequately prepared American president was not up to the job.

Neither was there a rerun of the 2018 fiasco in Helsinki when Donald Trump’s relentless determination to reset relations between Moscow and Washington saw the US president disown his own intelligence service’s warning that Russia had interfered in the election.

Divisions on the Ukraine, cyberattacks and Navalny remain.

However, there were some modest achievements with the two sides agreeing to press ahead with arms control talks and agreeing to put their ambassadors back to work.

To use an old diplomatic cliché, the summit could best be described as “businesslike”, suggesting the two men may at least rub along, which should see a slight thaw in the relations between Moscow and Washington.

Mr Putin bore no grudges at Mr Biden having once called him a killer.

The US president, he said, was a “very balanced, professional man who is very experienced” which, given the climate leading up to the summit, could be described as fulsome praise.

Joe Biden, in turn, described the tone as “good” and “positive” which probably as good as it gets.