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As Biden, Putin Set for 1st Summit, a Look Back at US-Russia Encounters

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With US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin set to meet for their first summit on Wednesday, we look back at previous historic encounters between the two nuclear powers:

1959: Eisenhower and Khrushchev

Dwight Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev met at Camp David in September in what was the first visit by a Soviet leader to the US.

Khrushchev came with his family and took the opportunity to tour the country, exploring the cornfields of Iowa as well as Hollywood, where he delivered one of his legendary rants to an audience that included Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor.

The summit concluded with a statement that the two superpowers work towards talks on disarmament and on the status of Berlin that the Cold War had divided.

1961: Kennedy and Khrushchev

The handsome newbie at the White House, John F Kennedy, met with the wizened experience of Nikita Khrushchev in June 1961 under the baroque frescoes of the former imperial Schoenbrunn Palace, Vienna’s Versailles.

The summit would prove to be an icy encounter befitting the Cold War era made chillier by the failed US Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba that happened shortly before. Berlin was top of the agenda, but two months later the wall dividing the city would be built.

A year later the Cuban missile crisis blew up, bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war.

1972: Nixon and Brezhnev

The Vietnam War cast a long shadow over the Moscow summit in May that brought Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev together. A few days before his trip, the US president had ordered massive bombings of Hanoi.

But the summit would prove key in ushering in the period of detente between the two superpowers as they signed the SALT and ABM weapons-control treaties.

In a joint declaration they said peaceful coexistence was the only basis for mutual relations in a nuclear age.

The two men met twice more while they were in power, underlining the thaw in ties. But relations would later chill again with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

1986: Reagan and Gorbachev

In four years Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev had four summits. Their first encounter took place in Switzerland in 1985 where Reagan, still berating the “evil empire” and preparing to set up a space-based defence system, suggested he and Gorbachev go for a walk “to get some fresh air” by Lake Geneva.

When they returned, the talk was of “chemistry”. Reagan found Gorbachev “very comfortable, very easy to be with”, his wife Nancy later recalled, a factor that, with their mutual appreciation, enabled them to throw the arms race into reverse.

A year after Geneva the two superpowers met again in Iceland’s capital Reykjavik to discuss eliminating their nuclear arsenals.

But the talks collapsed as Washington refused to roll back development of its “Star Wars” missile defence project, deemed unacceptable by the Kremlin.

Yet the summit has since been seen as the harbinger of significant de-escalation and a turning point in the Cold War.

It led to a treaty in 1987 under which both powers would eliminate their short- and intermediate-range nuclear missiles. Thousands of these weapons were scrapped in what was the first major weapons reduction by the rivals.

1992: Bush and Yeltsin

Boris Yeltsin was welcomed as “a friend” by his American host George Bush during his first visit to the US since the USSR’s collapse.

The two were at pains to forge a close personal relationship as a basis for economic cooperation between their countries but also to continue reducing their nuclear arsenals.

The summit marked Yeltsin’s entrance onto the world stage and the first UN Security Council meeting devoted to the post-Cold War period.

1995: Clinton and Yeltsin

Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin held eight summits during their terms of office, which overlapped during most of the 1990s. Their summits included one in Hyde Park, New York in 1995 where at times the two men, who had many disagreements over the years, seemed to get on like old friends.

The summit had brought no breakthrough agreements but a remark by Yeltsin at a news conference lightened the mood, and caused Clinton to burst into uncontrollable spasms of laughter.

“What you were writing was that today’s meeting with President Bill Clinton was going to be a disaster,” Yeltsin told reporters. “Well, now for the first time I can tell you that you’re a disaster.”

Clinton spent several moments trying to compose himself while draping a friendly arm around Yeltsin. The Russian, for his part, had the serene smile of a comic who had just brought the house down.

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