Joe Biden’s ‘killer’ comment: Undiplomatic, but the end of US-Russia relations?

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris deliver remarks after meeting with Asian-American leaders to discuss "the ongoing attacks and threats against the community," during a stop at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., March 19, 2021. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/
Editor's note:

While President Putin may not like being called a killer, President Biden is a serious interlocutor, and these comments will not stop Putin from engaging when he believes it can advance his goals, writes Steven Pifer. This post was originally published in the National Interest.

Two weeks ago, President Joe Biden affirmatively responded to George Stephanopoulos’s question, “Vladimir Putin. You think he’s a killer?” Russian commentators voiced outrage, while some American observers foresee a new or intensified ice age in U.S.-Russia relations.

The Russian president is a big boy though. He surely did not like Biden’s answer, but it is difficult to imagine that he would refuse to engage when he sees doing so in his or Russia’s interest.

Biden could and should have used more diplomatic language in replying to Stephanopoulos: “Look, there is a tightly controlled system over there. Certain things do not happen without the approval of the guy at the top.” Still, was his assessment incorrect?

Russia has carried out a conflict against Ukraine in eastern Donbas that has taken more than thirteen thousand lives and has no discernible motive other than to destabilize Kyiv. Putin-opponent Alexei Navalny was poisoned last summer, apparently by a special unit of the Russian Federal Security Service. In 2018, a Russian military intelligence hit team traveled to Britain, where it tried to poison Sergei Skripal, a busted double-agent who wound up in London after a spy swap.

Over twenty years, Putin has built a “power vertical” that concentrates authority in the Kremlin. It strains credulity to think the Donbas conflict or failed attacks on Navalny and Skripal would have occurred without his knowledge and consent.

It’s true that a comment like Biden’s is not usual between Washington and Moscow.  Recall, however, that Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” whose leaders “reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat.”  He poured Stinger missiles and other weapons into Afghanistan to drive out the Soviet army.  Mikhail Gorbachev nonetheless chose to deal with Reagan, and the two recorded major successes for relations between Washington and Moscow.

While Biden intends to push back against Russian overreach, his administration has also indicated readiness to cooperate where U.S. and Russian interests coincide.  On his first day in office, Biden agreed to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty until 2026, essentially accepting Putin’s offer from 2019.  His officials plan to talk to Russian officials on a range of strategic stability issues. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has a channel to his Russian counterpart. U.S. ambassador to Russia John Sullivan (no relation) is the rare Trump political appointee kept in place after Biden took office.  The Russians presumably noticed all this.

Dr. Julie Newton, an associate professor at the American University of Paris, recently expressed concern that Biden’s comment will fuel Russian grievances. Not to say that the deterioration in U.S.-Russia and West-Russia relations is solely the Kremlin’s fault, but Russian officials have a long list of grievances that often seem to boil down to “everyone is mad at us, what’s wrong with everyone?” They show no sign of having asked themselves whether invading neighboring states, cyber hacks against Western governmental and private institutions, and assassination attempts on the streets of European cities contribute to the problem.

Newton seems to believe Biden’s comment could make Putin less prepared to engage on issues that matter to Washington. Perhaps, but Putin calculates costs and benefits. Russia, like the United States, has an interest in keeping the nuclear arms competition bounded. While a nuclear Iran might pose a bigger problem for Washington, Moscow certainly would not welcome it. The Kremlin has an interest in a stable Afghanistan; if things go badly there, it’s much closer to Russia. Climate change poses challenges for Russia. Moscow and Washington can benefit from cooperation on these questions. Would Putin forgo that? Indeed, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on March 29 listed a number of issues for U.S.-Russian engagement.

Additionally, Newton appears to suggest a double standard. She notes that Biden has not sanctioned Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman. That is not exactly true. The White House has indicated that Biden will deal with the Saudi king, not Mohammed bin Salman. Putin and the Saudi king, not MbS, have invitations to Biden’s virtual climate summit in April.

Biden’s comment shocked those in Moscow, where they had become used to Donald Trump. Trump rarely, if ever, criticized Putin or Russian misbehavior. He also did not produce a single positive achievement in U.S.-Russia relations. Under Biden, New START extension got done in two weeks. To be sure, that does not mean a reset for U.S.-Russia relations, but in contrast to his predecessor, Biden is a serious interlocutor. Putin may not like being called a killer—who would? However, when he sees engagement with Biden can advance his goals, he will engage.