US President Joe Biden appeared to convey that he “trusts” Russian President Vladimir Putin as they met in Switzerland, however his advisers have now walked back his errant nod.
One reporter asked Mr Biden if he trusted Mr Putin to which he nodded, “yes”.
It was a surprising admission after the pair sat down for talks at the Geneva Summit in Switzerland given he has called Mr Putin is a “killer” who has “no soul”.
However, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Mr Biden didn’t intend to indicate he trusted Mr Putin.
“During a chaotic-free-for-all with members of the press shouting questions over each other, the president gave a general head-nod in the direction of the media,” Ms Psaki said. “He wasn’t responding to any question or anything other than the chaos.”
Asked earlier this week whether he could trust Mr Putin, the US President said, “I’d verify first and then trust.”
Mr Biden stared at Mr Putin as Swiss President Guy Parmelin introduced the pair outside the La Grange villa overlooking Lake Geneva.
The pair then extended their hands towards each other, a significant moment given tensions between the US and Russia are at their highest in years.
The handshake was described by commentators as “awkward”, however both leaders smiled during the greeting.
Mr Biden and Mr Putin are set to talk for between five to six hours, with cyberattacks, election meddling and rights abuse on the agenda.
Mr Biden softened his comments on Monday at the NATO summit in Belgium, saying that Mr Putin actually is a “worthy adversary” who is “bright” and “tough.”
Mr Putin thanked Mr Biden for “the initiative to meet”.
“I know you have been on a long journey and you have a lot of work,” Mr Putin said. “Still the US and Russia have a lot of issues accumulated that require the highest level meeting and I hope that our meeting will be productive,”
“It is always better to meet face-to-face,” Mr Biden said. “We are trying to determine where we have a mutual interest, where we can co-operate, and where we don’t (to) establish a predictable and rational way in which we disagree – two great powers.”
The Geneva Summit features two meetings: a smaller one between Mr Biden and Mr Putin, joined by translators, Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and then a larger group meeting featuring additional officials.
Mr Biden is expected to talk to Mr Putin about Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny who was poisoned with a nerve agent, believed to be known-about by the former KGB agent.
Mr Navalny recovered but was detained shortly after his arrival in Moscow from Germany in January and sentenced to two years and eight months in prison for violating the terms of his probation while he was treated abroad.
Mr Navalny initially went on a hunger strike, and his allies say he came close to death before ending his strike on the advice of doctors.
“Navalny’s death would be another indication that Russia has little or no intention of abiding by basic fundamental human rights,” Mr Biden said at a press conference Monday following the NATO summit. “It would be a tragedy. It would do nothing but hurt his relationships with the rest of the world, in my view, and with me.”
In an interview with NBC News, Mr Putin scoffed at allegations that he had anything to do with cyberattacks or the near-fatal poisoning of Mr Navalny
Most of the summit won’t be public and the leaders will give solo press conferences afterward.
Suggesting that relations between the two countries have not completely thawed, no meal was scheduled during the marathon talks.
White House officials sought to lower expectations, telling reporters aboard Air Force One that they are “not expecting a big set of deliverables.”
According to Russian and US officials, both countries may be open to reinstate their ambassadors, who returned home this year as tensions escalated.
The meeting between Mr Biden and Mr Putin is in stark contrast to the infamous Helsinki Summit where Mr Putin presented Donald Trump with a soccer ball and stood alongside Mr Trump while he accepted Mr Putin’s denials of election interference in 2016.
The meeting closely follows the reported deployment of three F-22 raptors by US officials on Sunday in response to large Russian war games featuring ships, submarines and bomber aircraft about 500-800 kilometres off Hawaii.
The US jets did not intercept any Russian bombers because they didn’t get close enough to Hawaii during the manoeuvres, which Russia called its largest Pacific exercise since the Cold War.