When Biden Insulted Putin on National TV
On March 16, Biden admitted on national television that he considers Vladimir Putin a killer. Added to a growing litany of provocations that Putin deeply resents, this straw just might be sufficient to prompt President Putin to take steps. These steps might go farther than the Biden administration realizes. For according to a Russian white paper released in 2000, Russia's current military doctrine significantly lowers the threshold under which resort to a tactical nuclear strike is "permitted," a doctrine entitled "nuclear de-escalation." According to an article by military policymakers for the Russian defense journal Voyennaya Mysl' (Military Thought), "O Primenenii Yadernogo Oruzhiya dlya Deeskalatsii Voyennykh Deystviy" ("On the Use of Nuclear Weapons for the De-Escalation of Hostilities"), this can include retribution for serious slights in political situations and pressing economic issues. At the lowest level, nuclear de-escalation consists of the firing of a single tactical nuke, for instance an Iskander missile, over water or other "deserted" territory, or else at the enemy's "secondary" military facilities, either unmanned or staffed with "limited" military personnel.
The occasion was Biden's interview with George Stephanopoulos for ABC News. In the course of that interview, Stephanopoulos brought up the DNC report released that day, claiming that Vladimir Putin had authorized operations during the election to denigrate Biden, support President Trump, undermine our elections, and divide our society. Biden referred back to the single phone call he held with Putin on January 26, for the first time intimating what he said during that call. "We had a long conversation. I know him relatively well. I said, 'I know you, and you know me. If I establish that this has happened, then be prepared.'" Biden promised Stephanopoulos, "He will pay for it."
Stephanopoulos then reminded Biden about what he had said in a past encounter with Putin. According to Biden, "I was alone with Putin in his office. That's how it came about. It was when President Bush had said, 'I've looked into his eyes and saw his soul.' I said, 'I looked into your eyes, and I don't think you have a soul.'" This would have been in 2011, while Joe Biden was vice president of the United States and Vladimir Putin was prime minister. Stephanopoulos then asked Biden, "You know Vladimir Putin. Do you think he's a killer?" Biden replied affirmatively, "Mm-hm, I do."
George Stephanopoulos's next question was, "So what price must he pay?" President Biden's reply clearly establishes that he considers himself to be somehow masterfully handling U.S. relations with Putin — and to have the upper hand. Biden responded, "The price he is going to pay...well, you'll see shortly. ... There are places where it's in our mutual interest to work together. That's why I renewed the START agreement with him. That occurred while he's doing this, but that's overwhelmingly in the interest of humanity that we diminish the prospect of a nuclear exchange."
As deputy minister Yevgeny Revenko has observed, "[t]his is the first time in history that an American leader has allowed himself a rude and unsubstantiated statement about Russia. Even in Soviet times, when the confrontation between the powers was at its peak, not a single American president allowed himself to speak out in this way against a Soviet leader. These statements offend not only the president, but the entire countries, all our citizens."
At first, Putin reacted with restraint to Biden's harsh statements. During an online meeting with Crimeans on March 17, he responded, when asked regarding "the statement of your American colleague," that he "wishes him good health." Putin also intimated, however, that the Russian Foreign Ministry would now "revise its approach to relations with America." Prompted by Biden's recall of their January 26 conversation, the Kremlin has now revisited its recording and transcript of the substance of that telephone call, now in a more negative light.
It is truly unfortunate that past encounters between Biden and Putin were resurrected during that televised interview. Putin well remembers his private conversation with Vice President Biden in 2011. He also still burns from Biden's numerous other slights in the past, recalling that Biden has called him the "KGB thug in charge of Russia," has mocked President Trump, whom he greatly respects, as "Putin's puppy" and described his country as "the biggest threat to the United States."
What is worse, when White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked by journalists during a press briefing held that same day, whether Joe Biden had any regrets regarding his words about Vladimir Putin, she answered firmly, "He has no regrets about his remarks. The president gave a direct answer to a direct question," adding that the American ambassador would remain in Russia. She followed up with an even greater provocation. Not unreasonably, President Putin's first move was to request an urgent, man-to-man talk with President Biden the following day, March 18, to clarify the situation between his Russian Federation and the United States. In response, not Biden himself, but Jen Psaki replied, "Negotiations will not take place tomorrow. The U.S. president will be very busy. You already had the opportunity to speak to Biden on the phone, unlike many other world leaders." In case Putin did not follow, Psaki added, "I have nothing to report in terms of future meetings."
The Biden administration seems oblivious to the rapid and dangerous deterioration of U.S.-Russia relations. Putin was already vexed over a host of other incidents. On January 26, Biden criticized Nord Stream 2 for "making Europe dependent on Russia for its energy." On February 19, in his speech at the Munich Security Conference, Biden accused Moscow of working to weaken NATO and the E.U. and promised to "resist these attempts." Then there is Biden's move to see new sanctions leveled against Russia over the poisoning of Alexei Navalny.
There are also numerous economic issues. In a deal sealed in August 2020 between an American firm, Delaware-based Delta Crescent Energy, and the Kurdish authorities, the oil fields of eastern Syria are being restored not to benefit Russia's ally, Syria, but to benefit the Kurds — as well as the United States. The pipe-laying vessel Fortuna being used in the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline is included in Biden's new round of sanctions. The Nord Stream 2 project is being heavily underwritten by Russian state energy firm GazProm, and the Fortuna is owned and operated by another Russian state-controlled enterprise, JSC KBT RUS, also called Rus Coal. Both enterprises stand to lose a fortune if the Nord Stream project fizzles.
It remains unclear as to what response the United States can expect from the Russian Federation for what is dismissed as trivial by Biden but is taken as a major slight by Putin. He has signaled the intensity of his disapproval with the recall of the Russian ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, to Moscow for "consultations" — immediately after Putin's request for a meeting with Biden was rebuffed. Summoning an ambassador to Moscow for consultation, called a "demarche" in diplomatic practice, is according to Andrei Baklanov, the former Russian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, a "strong measure," a "demonstrative act indicating dissatisfaction with the policy of the state to which that ambassador is assigned."
Lynn Corum is a translator of Russian who studies developments in the Russian press that affect America's national interests. She has been researching and writing on Putin's stated plans since 2009 and is a world expert on Project Russia, the Kremlin's published state ideology.