Biden meeting marks rare trip out of ‘bunker’ for Covid-cautious Putin
Rare sit-down talks come after Russian leader shut himself away for months to escape outbreak
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For more than a year, people who have wanted to get within breathing distance of Vladimir Putin have performed a ritual, two-week quarantine in Russian hotels and sanatoriums to protect the 68-year-old president from falling ill with coronavirus.
Since March 2020, powerful business people, regional governors, his pilots and medical staff, volunteers at an economic conference, and even second world war veterans have shut themselves away to meet the Kremlin leader or even stand in his general vicinity.
So it will be a rare sit-down when Putin jets into Geneva to meet Joe Biden, who has been on a whirlwind tour through Europe, attending the G7 summit in Cornwall and then flying to Brussels for meetings with EU and Nato leaders before travelling to Switzerland.
Putin has not publicly travelled abroad since the outbreak of coronavirus in early 2020, hosting foreign leaders in Moscow or Sochi and holding most of his meetings with government ministers and regional governors over videoconference.
Critics have chided Putin for sheltering in a “bunker” during the coronavirus outbreak, reportedly protected by medical tunnels of dubious efficacy that sprayed visitors with a cloud of disinfectant.
The Proekt investigative website later claimed the Kremlin had built an identical windowless office in Sochi, a resort city on the Black Sea, where Putin was reportedly holding meetings while he was believed to be in Moscow.
All that was expected to end after Putin was given his first Sputnik vaccine dose in March, a procedure that was not documented on camera but that the Kremlin said the media would “have to take our word for it”.
But the two-week quarantine period has remained for many visitors, including the US television crew who met Putin for an interview before the summit.
“Appreciate the extra time, Mr President,” said Keir Simmons, an NBC correspondent. “The team has been in quarantine for almost two weeks, so this interview is very important to us.” Russian state television journalists have faced similar quarantine measures.
The international coronavirus response will probably take a back seat in Wednesday’s discussions to pressing issues of strategic stability, as the US and Russia try to regulate their strained, hostile relationship.
But they come as coronavirus has in effect halted normal business and tourism travel between Russia and the US, a result of Russia’s coronavirus travel restrictions and forced staff reductions at US embassies that make it difficult for Russians to get visas to the US.
Vaccines administered in the two countries also remain mutually unrecognised by medical authorities, portending a political battle for their approval.
Slow vaccination rates in Russia have led to “explosive growth in cases”, according to the Moscow mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, leading him to declare a week-long business holiday.
Before the trip for the summit, Putin’s spokesperson Dmitri Peskov told journalists he was not vaccinated because he still had a high antibody count from when he had coronavirus last year.
“All safety precautions have been taken extremely seriously,” said Yuri Ushakov, a Putin aide. “From the standpoint of the presidents’ health, both the Americans and we have taken a very serious approach toward this. There have been not that many in-person contacts lately, and so the special attention attached to these issues is natural.”