As Biden Prepares To Meet Putin, A Look Back At U.S.-Russia Summits U.S.-Russia summits have ignited, and defused, global crises. There was the time the U.S. Secret Service found Boris Yeltsin in his underwear, slurring his words and craving a pizza.

U.S.-Russia Summits, From Gravely Serious To Absurdly Comical

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As we've heard, President Trump meets his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, tomorrow in Helsinki, Finland. Over the decades, summits between the two countries have often been filled with high tension and great drama - and occasional wackiness. NPR's Greg Myre takes us back.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Russian President Boris Yeltsin was staying at Blair House in 1994, the guest quarters across the street from the White House. President Bill Clinton later revealed that Yeltsin tried to slip out one night, only to be stopped by U.S. Secret Service agents who found the Russian leader in his underwear, slurring his words and demanding a pizza.

ANGELA STENT: I've certainly heard that story.

MYRE: Angela Stent heads the Russian studies program at Georgetown University. Stent says summits, whether gravely serious or absurdly comical, reflect or even define the broader relationship. She's studied these summits for decades and is part of a group of scholars that's met with Russian President Vladimir Putin every year for the past 14 years. At the meeting last October...

STENT: He criticized the Americans. He said, why are you Americans so critical of your own president? You're not showing him enough respect. You should let him do his job. And then, you know, two minutes later, he was really lambasting American foreign policy and all the terrible things Americans were doing.

MYRE: She notes that both presidents are keeping their options open.

STENT: But he has very, very cleverly never criticized President Trump personally, and the same is true the other way around.

MYRE: Presidents Trump and Putin meet at a time when U.S.-Russia friction is reminiscent of the Cold War. And that Cold War history teaches us that summits can be treacherous. President John F. Kennedy was young, inexperienced and new to office in 1961 when he held two days of talks in Vienna, Austria, with the bombastic Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Kennedy was stoic in public remarks afterwards.


JOHN F KENNEDY: I will tell you now that it was a very sober two days.

MYRE: But in private, Kennedy conceded that the Soviet leader beat the hell out of me.

DIMITRI SIMES: Khrushchev reached an erroneous conclusion that John Kennedy was a pushover.

MYRE: Dimitri Simes is the head of the Center for the National Interest in Washington.

SIMES: In this case, he has calculated wrong. He got an impression that if you really put pressure on President Kennedy, he would likely to retreat.

MYRE: The following year, an emboldened Khrushchev sent missiles to Cuba. This took the superpowers to the brink of nuclear war before the Soviets agreed to withdraw their weapons. While these summits were high risk, Simes says there was no real alternative.

SIMES: In the case of the Soviet Union, if you wanted to talk to them, you would have to talk to the Kremlin. That was it.

MYRE: The upside was that leaders could make things happen very quickly. Angela Stent describes the 1986 summit in Iceland between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

STENT: He was very skeptical about Gorbachev, but they had this meeting, the first meeting. And they came out of it suddenly telling their aides - oh, we've decided that we're going to abolish nuclear weapons. And their aides were absolutely shocked.

MYRE: They never went that far. But they established trust that kept tensions in check as the Soviet Union collapsed internally. However, relationships based on trust haven't always worked. President George W. Bush initially thought he had connected with Putin.


GEORGE W BUSH: I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul.

MYRE: But relations quickly soured, and Bush was criticized as naive. Trump thinks he'll do better.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You know what? Putin's fine. He's fine. We're all fine. We're people. Will I be prepared? Totally prepared. I've been preparing for this stuff my whole life. They don't say that.

MYRE: The world will see how prepared he is tomorrow in Helsinki.

Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington.

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