The Putin Problem

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S1: Joe Biden’s got the story he likes to tell whenever he talks about Vladimir Putin, Slate’s Josh Keating has heard the story a couple of times.

S2: It’s very kind of weird story where apparently he met Putin while he was vice president.

S1: Biden told the story to George Stephanopoulos recently.

S2: He said, you know, he doesn’t have a soul.

S3: I did say that to him. Yes.

S1: And Josh says the thing that’s weird about this story, especially the way Biden told it on national television, is that it’s not how we’re used to hearing presidents talk about their counterparts in other countries.

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S3: I wouldn’t be a wise guy. I was alone with him in his office. That’s how it came about. It was when President Bush had said I looked in his eyes and saw his soul. I said, look through your eyes and I don’t think you have a soul and look back. And he said, we understand each other look most important thing.

S2: Then Stephanopoulos followed up and asked Biden, does he think Putin is a killer? And Biden, you know, rather than hemming and hawing, he just said, I do.

S1: Did that surprise you?

S2: It is surprising. Stephanopoulos is definitely setting him up. Normally, a president would have found a way to kind of answer that without answering it rather than just saying, yes, I do think he’s a killer.

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S1: Can you tell me what Vladimir Putin’s response to this was? You said it was something like that. I know you are, but what am I response?

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S2: Yeah, exactly. I mean, he basically used this sort of Russian kindergarten taunt to paramedical, what

S4: it was like to and, you know, I remember in my childhood when we argued in the courtyard, we used to say it takes one to know one.

S2: And then, you know, he wished him good health, which is seems like a little dig at at Biden’s age. And then it is like the weirdest part is they challenged him to a live televised debate where they could settle their differences.

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S1: As silly as this back and forth sounds, Josh says it signals a very real shift in the U.S. Russia relationship.

S2: What’s interesting about this from, you know, looking at Biden is Biden is the fourth U.S. president who’s had to deal with Vladimir Putin’s Russia and his three predecessors all started out thinking that he was someone they could do business with. There was a period where it was, oh, we’re going to get along with them. And then it all fell apart this time around. I don’t think there are any illusions. There’s no reset this time. And so it’s very clear right off the bat, they’re under no illusions that there’s going to be some kind of period of warm relations between the Biden administration and the Putin administration.

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S1: Today on the show, the U.S. might be trying to freeze Russia out, but Russia is not going to let that happen. So what’s the future of this fraught relationship? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. I feel like it’s worth just listing out all of the provocations that the U.S. has faced from Russia over the last year, just to just to remember, I mean, you’ve got election interference. You have this massive hack, the solar winds hack, where we don’t even know how many assets have been, you know, picked open and where Russia might be sort of in government servers. And then you have, you know, after that interview with George Stephanopoulos, Russia began putting more troops on the border with Ukraine, which is a real escalation there. So these are not little provocations. They’re pretty big.

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S2: Yes. And then, of course, there’s the Alexei Navalny situation as well, sort of Putin’s most important domestic opponent has tried to run for president against him several times, was pretty clearly poisoned by him last year, had to leave the country and then returned and is currently in jail. As we record this is in jail, on hunger strike and fighting for his life. You know, if he dies in prison, you know, in the next few days or weeks, that’s going to be a further deterioration of the US Russia relations.

S1: I wonder if you can tell the story of where the U.S. and Russia are from Russia’s perspective, because I feel like, you know, a lot of American media focuses on the things Russia is doing, but not why they might make some kind of sense from the Russian perspective. Is that worth doing?

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S2: Sure. I mean, I think from the Russian perspective, the US is this sort of hypocritical bully that goes around talking about democracy and human rights and lecturing other countries as it uses its military power to overthrow foreign governments. I mean, not just in Iraq and Libya and Syria, but, you know, according to the Russian narrative, the US was behind the so-called color revolutions in countries close to Russia like Ukraine and Georgia. You know, from the Russian perspective, those were U.S. backed efforts at regime change. And I think the one thing that American governments and this was definitely true of the Obama administration of have gone wrong about Russia. You know, they’ve always viewed it as this kind of declining very dismissively, I think, as this declining power, totally dependent on on selling oil, as declining birthrates. You know, the litany goes on. And the idea is that this will translate into a diminishment also of its geopolitical influence that, you know, if Russia gets weaker at home, that it’s going to lose the ability to project power abroad,

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S1: that it will kind of know its place.

S2: Right. And, you know, Obama always used to say things like, you know, nobody buys anything from Russia like that. There’s sort of a second rate power. Why is everybody so hung up on this supposed threat from Russia? And the thing is, Russia’s been pretty effective at projecting its power abroad. I mean, you know, it’s still has probably the world’s third most powerful military. It’s been a major player in the conflict in Syria, that it annexed Crimea. It seized territory from another country, which is just something that in the modern world just doesn’t happen like that. That never happens anymore, that a country just seizes territory from one of its neighbors and gets away with it. And Russia did it. And, you know, it played at least some role in interfering in the US election in 2016. I mean, I don’t think that I think it goes too far to say Russia got Donald Trump elected, but it certainly had some disruptive influence in that election. So I think it’s it’s a little naive to say that Russia is just this declining power that we don’t have to worry about anymore.

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S1: You mentioned Alexei Navalny, who is imprisoned in Russia right now and reportedly in dire shape health wise. I wonder if you can just tell the story of Alexei Navalny and how he reached the place he’s in now, because I wonder if you think that the situation Navalny is in. Makes Putin maybe a more erratic adversary because he’s facing real pushback in his own country, which he has not faced until now.

S2: Yes, so Navalny is an interesting figure. I mean, he first came to prominence as a blogger, as somebody who kind of a kind of muckraking investigator who became known for publishing these exposes of the wealth of powerful oligarchs and officials in Putin’s circle.

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S1: So exposing graft.

S2: Yes, exactly. And over time, you sort of become a politician as well as his run for president, his run for mayor of Moscow. He was arrested in twenty thirteen and then unexpectedly released after thousands of his supporters marched on the Kremlin. News of his conviction and five year prison sentence inspired thousands of people to vent their anger at the Kremlin’s walls, rarely as an angry crowd permitted so close to the seat of Russian presidential power. One thing that I think is important to note, there has been opposition in Russia before. But, you know, it’s been difficult for traditional liberal parties to expand their constituency outside of, I guess in American terms, what we would call the coastal elites, like the the sort of educated liberals in Moscow and St. Petersburg. And they’ve always had a much wider appeal. And there’s sort of a dark side to this, which is early in his career. He had kind of links to, you know, right wing nationalist groups. And he’s made some pretty disgusting comments about immigrants and and Muslims, which he’s since distanced himself from as a sort of international profile has grown. He’s sort of been on on better behavior, I guess, as far as that goes.

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S1: But do you think it’s part of his appeal?

S2: I think it yes. I think that he has a kind of nationalist appeal. He’s not it’s harder for the Kremlin to paint him as a kind of western US puppet. And I think that focusing on the graft, on the corruption and on the like, the personal wealth that Russian politicians, including Vladimir Putin himself, have amassed during their time in power rather than kind of airy notions of liberal democracy. I think that that’s helped him expand his appeal

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S5: August 20th on a flight to Moscow. A passenger

S1: captures the awful

S5: wails of Alexei Navalny.

S2: So last year, Navalny was poisoned while he was boarding a flight in Novosibirsk, which is a city in Siberia, and he was evacuated to Germany for medical treatment. And it’s pretty clear from subsequent investigations that it was the FSB, the Russian Internal Security Service had a role in that poisoning. But despite a pretty clear threat to his life, he returned to Russia in January and was immediately arrested.

S4: Russian riot cops cracking down with a heavy hand, detaining protesters in Moscow who are calling for the release of

S2: Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

S1: Why did he return?

S2: I mean, I think it was a calculated risk. He knew that he knew he would be arrested and he knew there would be massive protests. And you have to remember, he’s been arrested before and been released before. And he knew that this would be a sort of major galvanizing political event. And, you know, I mean, the man’s not a saint for I’ve talked about sort of racist comments he’s made in the past. He’s been called like an authoritarian and a bully by people who have worked with him. But, you know, in terms of sort of sheer physical courage in facing up to this government that’s very clearly willing to kill him, it’s hard to think of many political figures in the world to match him.

S1: How does that change the calculus for someone like Vladimir Putin, who’s been in charge for a long time, has just put in place rules that mean he can be in charge for a long time, longer, I think, into his 80s.

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S2: I think he’s sort of hoped he can make this guy go away. And, you know, Navalny has continued to sort of build support. So there’s a kind of like high stakes game of chicken going on where it’s really with Navalny life. I mean, if you were recording this on Sunday and on Wednesday, there are massive street protests planned throughout Russia, which could be the biggest protests the country has seen since 2011. I think if Alexei Navalny dies in prison, the protest movements are only going to grow. And so, you know, I think Putin is taking massive risks here, too, with with the way Navalny is being treated.

S1: When we come back, a Biden adviser has warned that they’re going to be consequences if Navalny dies in custody. But exactly what consequences and will they do any good? And we’re back, one of the reasons Alexei Navalny is significant to the US is that Navalny could spark a domestic crisis for Putin. But if that happens, there’s good reason to believe Putin himself would instigate some sort of international crisis to distract the folks at home. He’s done this before. Most world leaders have done this before. That scenario would leave the Biden administration with few options to restrict Putin’s behavior. The U.S. has already thrown a ton of sanctions Russia’s way, but even the latest round of Biden sanctions are kind of mad routine.

S2: One, they expelled 10 Russian diplomats, which is something they’ve done before, too. They put sanctions on a number of countries they say were linked to Russia’s cyber activities abroad. And three, they sort of banned companies from purchasing bonds issued by the Russian government, which is buying Russian government debt, which is a major way that the Russian government raises capital. The thing is, like the U.S. has imposed round after round of sanctions on Russia since the seizure of Crimea and 2014.

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S1: Has it had any impact? I mean,

S2: it’s had an impact on Russia’s GDP. I mean, it’s definitely every you know, every economist said it’s it’s shaved at least a few points off of Russia’s GDP growth, but

S1: it has any effect on Vladimir Putin’s GDP.

S2: It right. It hasn’t had an effect on Russia’s behavior. You know, I guess you could say maybe they would have gone further in Ukraine if not for the sanctions, but they definitely haven’t gone back on anything that they had been doing. And actually, there’s an argument to be made that it it may have actually strengthened Vladimir Putin a little bit because these Russian companies no longer have access to international capital. So it’s only sort of drawn them closer and made them more dependent on the Russian government.

S1: Beyond sanctions, Biden is stuck with the meat and potatoes of foreign policy, joining with other countries to make it harder for Putin to work as well. But that gets complicated pretty fast. Like, say, the U.S. does more to help Ukraine stand up to Russia.

S2: The thing is, Ukraine is also sort of looking to provoke crises. The Ukrainian government built up its own troops on the borders of these disputed areas where Russian separatists hold sway. And that happened a few weeks before Russia sent its own troops to the Russian Ukrainian border. So it’s sort of to the Ukrainian government’s advantage if there is a US Russia crisis, because that means that the U.S. is going to be sort of pouring money, more money and support into Ukraine.

S1: Do you feel like the US may be about to be used by one or both of these people?

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S2: I think this worked out just how the government of Ukraine, it just their president. So let’s go out to it. And, you know, on the Europe side of this, I think another interesting issue to look at is this pipeline,

S1: the pipeline from Russia to Germany.

S2: Right. So it’s called Nord Stream two. It’s an expansion of like an existing pipeline project. It’s mostly done. It’s, I believe, about 90 percent completed. But if completed, this will, on the one hand, make Germany and Western Europe more dependent on Russia for its natural gas. And it’ll it’s going to be a blow to Ukraine, too, because previously a lot of that gas came in through Ukraine and the US has long been opposed to this pipeline. And actually now the Biden administration is coming under pressure from Congress to sanction it.

S6: I think the Biden administration is making a major and unnecessary mistake. They’re making it because they want to play nice with Germany and that’s great. Play nice with Germany on 50 other things. But there’s no reason to give a massive windfall to Putin and make Europe dependent on Putin’s energy.

S2: Ted Cruz actually put a hold on the confirmation of Biden’s CIA director, Bill Burns, for a few weeks until the State Department would, you know, make a more aggressive statement in opposition to this pipeline. The reason this is a tough one for Biden is because every foreign policy position they take, it’s like work with allies, rebuild alliances. But, you know, Germany or at least the current German government really wants this pipeline. So, you know, if you’re going to put sanctions on it to punish Russia, you’re going to piss off Germany and you’re going to strain the alliances you want, not just on Russia, but on a whole host of other issues. So, you know, it’s the sort of catch twenty two where in order to get tough on Russia, you’re going to have to alienate the partner you need in order to get tough on Russia. So it’s I can see why it’s sort of a bind and it’s a tough position for Biden to be in.

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S1: Yeah, it’s interesting listening to you, because the Biden administration folks, when they speak to the media, there’s a lot of talk about learning from the past. But it just it really sounds like at this point we’re in this. Real reset where the political parties in the U.S. are trying to decide how they respond, countries in Europe are trying to figure out how they respond. And we’re in this interstitial period where it’s a little bit unknown who’s going to be on which side of the equation.

S2: I think there’s a recognition that, you know, Russia, at least as long as Vladimir Putin is in power, is not going to be any sort of partner. There may be moments when there are opportunities on arms control on Afghanistan and on, you know, very particular issues where there is room for cooperation. But, you know, overall, you know, Russia has an ideological project that sees, you know, Western liberal democracies as a threat. And that’s not going to change that. There’s not going to you know, Russia’s in no sense ever going to be an ally of the U.S. as long as the current governments in power. But it’s probably one that can be managed. I mean, it’s it’s not you know, nobody wants to go to war with Russia. Nobody wants direct conflict. I think the idea is that, you know, we can have a rivalry but sort of keep it at like a low simmer and just sort of manage it. And I think that’s the sort of place where the current Biden team seems to have landed.

S1: Yeah. I mean, one one writer I was reading was talking about how when you think about the U.S. and the relationship with Russia, you almost think beyond Russia and think like the U.S. needs a strategy for a changing world, like the way that we did business for a long time isn’t really working anymore in the same way. And so we need to figure out what the new way forward is. And I wonder if you’d agree with that.

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S2: Yeah, I think I would. I mean, it’s funny that the last time I talked to you, we were talking about Biden in the Middle East. And there’s sort of a similar thing going on where I think the what they really want to do is, you know, they’re sort of maniacally focused on China and, you know, countering Chinese authoritarianism. You know, beyond that, they want to build international cooperation on climate change. They want to sort of rebuild the alliances that were strained under Trump. So those are things they want to do. And I agree with all those goals. The problem is, like, while you’re doing that, there’s all there all these things, there are all these sort of crises left over, whether it’s the Middle East, whether it’s Russia, long time irritants for US foreign policy aren’t going away anytime soon. So, you know, while you’re pivoting to the things you really want to talk about these issues that you’d rather just sort of keep on the back burner are going to keep flaring up, you know, basically any any issue where where you think like that’s that’s something that’s a big bite in this administration foreign policy priority right now. There’s going to be a kind of Russian facet to it. I mean, it’s it’s it’s hard to separate Russia from from any of these questions.

S1: It’s funny. It sounds like they’re like family and like the people who are fighting just keep showing up to dinner together. You know, you keep going to the family get togethers. Putin again.

S2: Yeah. I mean, it’s like they’re not going away anytime soon.

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S1: Josh Keating, thank you so much for joining me.

S2: Thanks for having me.

S1: Josh Keating covers the whole wide world for Slate. And that is the show What Next is produced by Daniel Hewitt, Elena Schwartz, Davis Land, Carmel Dilshad and Mary Wilson. We are led by Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. I’m Mary Harris. You can go check me out on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s Desk. Thanks for listening. I’ll catch you back here tomorrow.

S2: There’s a joke people always tell about Brazil, that it’s the country of the future and always will be a mean joke. But if you know Russia, it’s kind of the opposite. Like Russia is like a power in decline and always will be.