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Russian and American flags fly on a bridge prior to a meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, in Geneva.

SeanGallup/Getty Images

U.S. President Joe Biden told a TV interviewer earlier this year that he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin is a killer, and told his biographer that the first time he met the Kremlin boss he told Mr. Putin: “I don’t think you have a soul.”

The tough talk sets an awkward tone for a summit on Wednesday, when the two men will meet in an 18th-century villa on the shores of Lake Geneva to discuss issues ranging from the conflicts in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere, to U.S. concerns about election meddling, cyberattacks and the Kremlin’s crackdown on dissent.

Never before have expectations been set so low for a meeting between U.S. and Russian presidents. There will be no major new arms control agreements, no active plan to broker peace in Eastern Europe, the Middle East or anywhere else. A sign of a successful summit might be as little as the two men agreeing to allow their respective ambassadors to return to their posts in Moscow and Washington, D.C., after several months’ absence, amid a spike in tensions earlier this year.

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Mr. Biden’s team heads to Geneva hoping to deliver the simple message that “America is back” in its old leadership role on the international stage – and that there will be consequences if Mr. Putin continues the kind of destabilizing activity the U.S. believes Russia got away with while Donald Trump was in the White House.

“I’m going to make clear to President Putin that there are areas where we can co-operate, if he chooses. And if he chooses not to co-operate and acts in a way that he has in the past, relative to cybersecurity and some other activities, then we will respond. We will respond in kind,” Mr. Biden told a news conference at the end of Monday’s meeting of the NATO military alliance, which concluded with a joint communiqué labelling Russia “a threat to Euro-Atlantic security.”

In an interview with NBC television that was aired Sunday, Mr. Putin seemed to mourn the end of the era when Mr. Trump – whom he described as “an extraordinary individual” – was openly deferential to him, including at a 2018 meeting between the two men at a summit in Helsinki. But the Russian leader said his country could also benefit from more predictable U.S. foreign policy.

“It is my great hope that yes, there are some advantages, some disadvantages, but there will not be any knee-jerk reactions on behalf of the sitting U.S. President, that we will be able to comply with certain rules of engagement, certain rules of communications and will be able to find points of contact and common points,” Mr. Putin said, according to a Kremlin transcript of the interview.

Mr. Biden will be the fifth U.S. president Mr. Putin has met with since coming to power at the turn of the century.

Fyodor Lukyanov, a Moscow-based foreign policy specialist, said that while Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump – who “shared a common rejection of political correctness” – got along at a personal level, the Russian side was worried by the collapse of several key international treaties during Mr. Trump’s time in office.

Mr. Trump withdrew his country from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which barred both the U.S. and Russia from possessing medium-range nuclear missiles, as well as the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, which allowed both sides to monitor the other’s military activities via unarmed reconnaissance flights. Mr. Trump also pulled the U.S. out of a 2015 deal meant to keep Iran from developing its own nuclear arsenal.

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“Trump was ignorant. He didn’t even want to speak about [arms control], and the people around him wanted to kill all treaties completely,” said Mr. Lukyanov, who serves as the chairman of the Council for Foreign and Defence Policy at the state-run Russian International Affairs Council. “The common agenda basically disappeared. So what they will try and do [in Geneva] is restore some common agenda, even if it’s very narrow.”

Mr. Biden is in the midst of trying to renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal, which Russia is also party to. He and Mr. Putin also took the confidence-building step, almost immediately after Mr. Biden took office in January, of extending New START, another nuclear arms control pact that Mr. Trump was going to let expire, until 2026.

However, the Biden administration said last month that it would not immediately rejoin the Open Skies Treaty, blaming Russian behaviour – including a military buildup around Ukraine earlier this year – for undermining trust between the two countries.

While no one expects the two sides to revive the Open Skies or INF treaties at the meeting in Switzerland, Mr. Lukyanov said a positive outcome might see the establishment of a working group that would examine how to restore “strategic stability.”

The two men might also agree to a prisoner exchange that could see Americans, including Paul Whelan, a Canadian-born U.S. national jailed since 2018 on espionage charges, freed in exchange for the release of some Russian nationals in U.S. jails. Mr. Biden is also expected to raise the case of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny.

In a possible gesture of goodwill, Russia on Monday removed the name of exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya from an international wanted list. Mr. Putin is a key supporter of the regime of Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, which is viewed as illegitimate by the U.S., Canada and other countries.

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Roman Waschuk, a former Canadian ambassador to Ukraine, said Mr. Putin had secured a victory just by getting a summit with Mr. Biden – something the U.S. President originally proposed in April as Russian military forces were massing near the country’s border with Ukraine.

“This is probably what Putin was looking for. He was willing to spend hundreds of millions of rubles to get Biden’s attention – to say, ‘I’m here and you can’t avoid treating me as a superpower equal. Obviously, having a summit is much less taxing than having a military confrontation.”

Mr. Waschuk said Mr. Putin’s willingness to take risks – as demonstrated by Russia’s seizure and annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and by its military intervention in Syria – gave him an advantage in dealing with Mr. Biden, who comes to the Geneva meeting seeking to stabilize relations with Russia so the U.S. can focus on China, which it perceives as a greater challenge.

“What Putin has done is escalate – both literally and verbally – to the extent that him not invading nations and denying their existence can be interpreted as progress,” Mr. Waschuk said.

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