Joe Biden has decided to skip the part where a new president acts like he might get along with Vladimir Putin.
When George W. Bush first met the Russian leader in 2001—at a time when the previously obscure Putin was still something of a mystery in the West—he famously said he had “looked the man in the eye” and “found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. … I was able to get a sense of his soul.” Bush would later regret the remark when Russia went to war with U.S. ally Georgia in 2008.
Barack Obama had the advantage of coming into office when the more amenable Dmitry Medvedev was president (though Putin, then prime minister, was still unofficially the most powerful man in the country), and he promised a “reset” in relations with Russia. But after a few productive agreements on arms control and Afghanistan, relations foundered over Ukraine, Syria, Libya, and a host of other crises.
Donald Trump’s frequently expressed fondness for Putin and his desire for better relations with Russia was the subject of just a bit of controversy early in his presidency, but it didn’t amount to much in practice. U.S.-Russia relations lurched from crisis to crisis under the Trump administration, which ended up imposing even tougher sanctions on Russian officials than the Obama administration had and selling weapons to Putin’s rivals in Ukraine.
Biden, by contrast, has promised no resets. The president is a longtime Russia hawk and made that stance a major feature of his 2020 campaign. In his first major foreign policy speech, he said that he had “made it clear to President Putin, in a manner very different from my predecessor, that the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions—interfering with our elections, cyberattacks, poisoning its citizens—are over.”
So the sentiments Biden expressed about Putin in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on Tuesday weren’t exactly a surprise, but the way he expressed them still managed to set off a diplomatic crisis.*
Biden repeated a story he had previously told in a 2014 New Yorker profile, in which he, referring to the Bush line, once told Putin during a face-to-face meeting that he had “looked in your eyes and I don’t think you have a soul.” Putin supposedly replied, “We understand each other.”
When Stephanopoulos followed up by asking Biden if he thinks Putin is “a killer,” the president replied, “I do.”*
Putin has responded by calling Biden a hypocrite, saying that all countries have to deal with “bloody events” and that “I remember in my childhood, when we argued in the courtyard with each other we used to say: It takes one to know one. And that’s not a coincidence, not just a children’s saying or joke. The psychological meaning here is very deep.” (Putin’s specific words were apparently a popular playground taunt along the lines of “I know you are but what am I” that rhymes in Russian.) Seemingly referring to Biden’s age, Putin also wished him “good health.” Later, Putin challenged Biden to a live televised debate to settle their differences. Let no one doubt the Russian leader’s trolling skills.
On a more serious note, the Kremlin also recalled its ambassador to Washington for consultations. He is likely to return once this blows over, but still, this is something that hasn’t happened for decades.
U.S.-Russia relations were already in a very bad place, and this won’t help them. But how much will it really matter? Generally speaking, when you call someone a killer, you follow it up with action, though as the recent case of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman shows, that’s not the case for everyone. Similarly to its handling of the investigation of MBS’s role in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the Biden administration has declassified an intelligence finding that Russia’s FSB security agency was behind the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and has announced new sanctions against a number of Russian officials in response, but none targeting Putin himself. (The Russian president is in direct control of the FSB.)
Biden said in the ABC interview that Putin would “pay a price” for Russian interference in the 2020 election, as alleged in a new report from the director of national intelligence, and the U.S. is expected to unveil new sanctions within days. But that’s hardly unexpected. At this point, the U.S. is already enforcing so many sanctions on Russia that officials there likely price such measures into their foreign policy calculations.
Biden probably doesn’t want to blow up the U.S.-Russia relationship entirely. Despite tensions, Biden and Putin agreed to an extension of the New START arms control treaty in January. Russia is hosting talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban this week, at a time when the Biden administration is pushing those two sides to reach a peace agreement. Even after the “killer” exchange, Biden was quick to add that the two countries can “walk and chew gum at the same time. … There’re places where it’s in our mutual interest to work together.”
Still, Biden could have found a more diplomatic way to answer Stephanopoulos’ question, and the fact that he didn’t suggests that this was either a gaffe or he’s essentially written off the idea of Putin as a potential partner.*
Ultimately the “killer” affair may have more to do with domestic politics in both countries than foreign policy. All Biden really did was repeat a story he’s been telling for years, and concur with his own intelligence agencies’ assessments of Putin’s activities. But by choosing to do it, he did draw a contrast with Trump, who famously responded with some Putinesque whataboutism when Bill O’Reilly suggested to him that Putin was a “killer” in 2017. The Trump years opened up a wide partisan gap in U.S. views on Putin, and it’s hard to imagine Biden will suffer politically for criticizing the Russian leader, no matter how glibly.
As for Putin, he’s been using international crises to deflect attention from problems at home for decades now. A shot across the bow from Biden, when it can be spun as an attack on all Russians, is a gift for the Russian president. His sarcastic response, and the contrast he’s drawing to the supposedly doddering American leader, will also play well with his supporters. Neither the U.S. nor Russia is likely to benefit from any of this, but both presidents probably got what they wanted.
Correction, March 18, 2021: This post originally misspelled George Stephanopoulos’ last name.