US President Joseph Biden called Vladimir Putin "a killer" in a recent interview. This prompted the recall of the Russian ambassador to Washington and outraged reactions from Russian officials and the media. In this report, MEMRI presents three analytical articles pondering the impact of the interview on the future of US-Russia relations.
The first by Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the magazine Russia in Global Affairs and Chairman of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy's presidium, argues that Biden's comments betray the American conceit that the U.S. is indispensable to the world, and the US can pick and choose when and where it will engage with others. The US lightheadedness is a far cry from the serious attitude evinced during the Cold War, when it treated the Soviet Union as a long-term interlocutor, and raises the question of whether US-Russia ties are worth preserving.
In contrast, Mikhail Rostovsky, Moskovskij Komsomolets' "observer", believes that the Biden interview will not have far-reaching consequences and that Putin will be able to shrug it off. The United States is far too important to be ignored. Rostovsky, however, laments the fact that Russia-US relations are in a loop resembling chewing gum and a cow chewing its cud. This is due to the recent succession of unserious American leaders, who wade into international relations like kids in a sandbox.
Anton Oreh a senior writer for Echo of Moscow, actually believes that Biden's refreshing candor can unblock relations between the two countries. He also argues that Biden's charge that Putin is a killer is not that outrageous, considering the unsolved political murders in Russia, the murderous actions by Russian mercenaries abroad, and the torture of dissidents. All this took place under Putin's watch, and for this he bears responsibility. Below, in succession are the three opinion pieces:
Lukyanov: Recall Of The Russian Ambassador Is Not Enough, The Entire Relationship Must Be Reassessed
"Joseph Biden's affirmative answer to a television interviewer's question about whether he considers Vladimir Putin to be a murderer is appalling even in the context of the long continuing free-fall in relations between Washington and Moscow. Our reaction ranges from the assumption that the American president did not fully grasp what he was asked, to the version that Biden has thereby declared war on Russia and Putin.
"The first hypothesis is easy to refute by watching the video excerpt. Biden speaks quite confidently and coherently, recalls his rather old meetings with Putin, and the answer to the question is even somewhat picturesque. What is called, in sound mind and compos mentis. Regarding the second option, of course, it is possible to conjecture that such a peremptory statement was a signal to some opponents of the Kremlin... "Biden talks about American problems, the topic of Putin surfaces in connection with the report released the previous day by the intelligence community on interference in last year's elections. The document does not contain charges comparable to those presented in connection with the 2016 elections.
"It's assumed that the Russians were trying to inflict discord in the minds and hearts of Americans, and in this they were willingly or unwillingly abetted by Trump's entourage.
"Another intelligence report released the day of the interview expands on this idea - statements by Trump and his associates about the stolen elections spurred extremism within the United States. On the whole, an understandable interrelationship between external adversaries and the internal fifth column acting in their interests begins to take shape. Classic stuff.
"Biden's statements lead to two conclusions:
"First, domestic politics continues to unconditionally dominate the US administration's agenda [emphasis original], as was the case under Trump. Expectations that the Democratic victory would at least temporarily pacify the all-consuming internal squabbles that fountain like, are gushing out, have not been justified. The Democratic Party is in a hurry to consolidate the fruits of its success, and the habitual tool of the last four years, in the form of Russian intervention, remains in demand. And this is again a tool, i.e. a means, rather than an end.
"Overall, it's fair to say that the Biden administration's rhetoric about America's 'return' to global leadership is largely a shell.
"It is intended to demonstrate the break with Trumpism. But in reality, the course will be a cautious continuation of tactics aimed at reducing international obligations. Cautious compared to the Trump period, but intensified compared to the Obama period. In general, a smokescreen designed to obscure real actions.
"Second, and perhaps more importantly, Biden's remarks highlight a phenomenon that is flourishing in international politics. Figuratively it can be called the triumph of boneless language, and descriptively - a widening gap between the rhetorical and the practical [emphasis original].
"By previous standards, to call the leader of another country, especially a great power with multifaceted potential, a killer, would mean to be ready for a break in relations and more dangerous consequences.
"This is clearly not the case now. In the same interview, after bashing Putin, Biden said unembarrassedly that "you can walk and chew gum at the same time." That is, Washington is going to work with Moscow wherever it needs it.
"This conceit is based on the US leadership's confidence that such behavior will not have any serious consequences. For 30 years after the Cold War, America has become accustomed to omnipotence and even now, despite its patented difficulties, considers it an integral feature. The Washington establishment believes that relations with it are inherently valuable, and for the sake of their preservation (avoiding their degradation to outright hostility) all countries, including China and Russia declared as strategic rivals, are ready to show humility. In other words, relations with the United States are obviously more important for external partners than vice versa. A comprehensive formulation of this consciousness was given almost a quarter of a century ago by Madeleine Albright, who called the United States 'an irreplaceable power.'
"But there is also another reason. The absence of a real military threat, or more precisely the belief in the perpetuity of deterrence, gives responsible persons 'extraordinary lightheadedness', and turns relationships into a semblance of online computer games. The morals and customs of diplomacy are approaching the style of communication on social networks, since they have become, with Trump's light hand, not even the main mouthpiece, but the source and space of politics. This has its advantages - as in the network 'pigsties', the ardor often becomes verbal, and there it runs out of steam. But no matter how gamified the political environment becomes, no one will undertake to guarantee that the actions will unfold only within it. It cannot be excluded out that someone will be held accountable for the 'bazaar', and the more it is 'unfiltered', the riskier the transition to 'offline' becomes.
"Biden's statement cannot be left without a clear response, if purely for the reason that it will only reinforce Washington's feeling that 'everything goes' and 'nothing will happen.'
"Recalling the ambassador for consultations is a natural but insufficient step. It would be logical to completely freeze relations with the exception of the minimum necessary technical aspects. Most importantly, it is required to counter the US belief that arbitrary behavior is possible in most areas, while maintaining useful interaction in certain areas of importance to them. You won't be able to walk and chew gum.
"Our traditional approach is the very opposite.
"Moscow does not tire of emphasizing its readiness for constructiveness where and to the extent that the United States is ready for it.
"It is a reasonable assumption that the current state of affairs is a product of this approach. So, it's time to renounce it. The standard objection to this is that there are common problems, whose solution are a mutual interest, and dialogue is still better than its absence, even if only for the future. And as an example, the experience of "the darkest pages of the Cold War" is cited, even then it was possible to find a common language on the most important security issues, etc.
"If we are to resort to such logic, then we must remember that "the darkest pages" were marked by a high degree of structured confrontation and an attentive attitude to words and deeds. The parties took each other seriously and for the long term. For the long term- in the sense that neither the one nor the other side proceeded from the likelihood of a fatal weakening or even disappearance of a competitor. Now both the former 'serious', and 'long term' [approaches] are absent. And, the pillars of strategic stability (and it was the foundation of stability in general) are eroding before our very eyes. Dialogue in the form in which it developed or wound down over the past few years did not produce a new agenda, but destroyed the existing one.
"The world system is undergoing truly fundamental changes, whose result is unknown.
"Caution should be the fundamental international political virtue, especially since everyone's internal problems outweigh external ones in importance. Reducing external ties to those that are either absolutely necessary or guaranteed to be productive is a natural response to the current situation. Where the relationship is conflicted, fruitless and accompanied by rudeness on the part of the interlocutor, it is difficult to prove the value of their preservation.
Fyodor Lukyanov (Interfax.ru)
Mikhail Rostovsky: Russia-US Relations Are In A Rut That Doesn't Spell Disaster, But Contribute To Missed Opportunities
"Journalist: 'So you happen to know Vladimir Putin. Do you think he's a killer?" Biden: "Uh-huh. I do. You'll see shortly Putin will pay the price. However, one can 'walk and chew gum at the same time", there're places where it's in our mutual interest to work together.' The previous president of the United States was considered to be the absolute champion 'big mouth'. However, under Biden, the column 'international relations news' is also being constantly updated. Relations between Russia and America have reached the bottom of Mariana Trench (for those unaware, this is the deepest place on earth).
"But the thing is that the [Russian-American] relations didn't reach the bottom. Let's thank to Joe Biden for the fact that immediately after the statement "the president of Russia is a killer" and "the president of Russia will pay the price" he mentioned "gum chewing". The new rhetorical finesse of the American leader should be treated like "gum chewing". And the fact that the "leader of the free world" himself rolls the chewing gum back and forth in his mouth does not make this substance more important than plain chewing gum.
"If you want to be taken seriously, then act seriously. This aphorism, which I just invented (although, I won't claim authorship, for surely this simple idea was formulated a million times before me) applies to America only to some extent.
"The United States remains the most powerful state in the world, a country with incredibly huge financial, military and intellectual resources. One can disregard such a colossus only at great peril to your own wellbeing. But, as the example of the last three US presidents demonstrates, this serious, respectful attitude towards a country does not necessarily extend to the people who rule it.
"I will keep quiet about Trump. His verbal stretches are still fresh in our memory. But preceding Trump was Obama with his folkloric expression, "The Russian economy is in tatters." Now Biden has distinguished himself. First, he called his peer as a world leader "a killer", and three words later added that, if necessary, he is ready to negotiate with this "killer".
"So, what does this make Biden after such words? [Is he] a "killer's confidant", the slick cynic who considers the highlighted immorality to be the greatest of political virtues? Let's not pretend to be a coy "political virgin". First of all, Biden is a person who very clearly knows and respects the unwritten rules of the 2021 American political game.
"Had he answered the question "You think Putin is a killer?" in the negative, such an answer, according to the current norms of American political correctness, is as grave sin as not to be in puppy-like rapture over the topic of transgender people or to use the 'terrible N-word' in relation to his black citizens.
"Now, as you know, one can be lynched for this in the United States (for now, thank heaven, in the figurative sense). Thus, Biden eluded the trap: he demonstrated to everyone how politically correct and cool he is. So what? – Well, nothing. I just want to "roll the tape forward" to the post-covid future, when the leaders of the leading world powers will once again meet face-to-face, and Biden will have to smile courteously and shake hands with VVP at some G20 summit. What fun this will be!
"Also. I can't wait for the joint press conference of the current presidents of the Russian Federation and the United States (such an event is, of course, not guaranteed, but is quite possible), "Mr. President, do you still consider your amiable interlocutor to be a killer? And if so, did he try to kill you during your one on one meeting? He didn't, you say? Well tell us then, weren't you afraid to come to the meeting?"
"Does my flight of fantasy resemble a kiddy party at an insane asylum? I won't deny that this is true. But I won't deny something else either. For many years, the American leaders' behavior resembles children's games in a sandbox I really hope that Putin also thinks so and won't seriously be offended by Biden's words. Please agree with me: how one can be offended by a forgetful elderly gentleman who not only sedulously pretends to be superman, but seems to be really convinced that he is superman?
"One doesn't take offense at such people; one should only feel sorry for them. However, one should really feel sorry about Russian-American relations. Why should they suffer? Why were they relegated to the state of chewed up gum?
"Of course, judging by our experience, the condition of "Peace. Friendship. Chewing gum" is unnecessary for ties between Moscow and Washington. For years, Russia-United States relations have been living with the same 'gum'. However, the world didn't go down the tubes.
"But how many useful opportunities (which might never recur) were missed in this time? This is a rhetorical question. We'll continue to watch how Biden chews gum [cud]. I wonder if he'll start blowing bubbles out of it."
Mikhail Rostovsky (Russian.rt.com)
Anton Oreh: Candid Relations Between Putin The Killer And Biden The Old Fart Are Beneficial
"For starters, I strongly advise you not to content yourself with the website and social network posts that translated Biden's words into Russian, but to find the [interview] video for yourself. The intonation and facial expressions are no less informative than the words. All of [his interjections like] "m-hm" and "hmm", which are being quoted now are not signs of some sort of insecurity, stammering or senile dementia.
"The clear and precise picture tells: Biden has no doubts; smiling he speaks of something completely obvious for him, "yes, of course, Putin is a killer."
"And certainly, the video doesn't show any signs of hysteria, about which [Duma Speaker Vyacheslav] Volodin was talking about. Hysteria is the natural state for that same Volodin and his friends. However, Biden came across in the interview not as a politician, but rather as person. After all he have to work with Putin somehow. How will it look? In a call, instead of 'good morning", he will say, "Hey, Volodya the Killer [Vladimir Putin], what's up?"
"However, the new president of America won't be able to impair Russian-American relations by these words, because it is impossible make them even worse than they are. These relations will even become sincerer if Biden will call Putin a killer, and Putin will call Biden an old fart. The more the merrier.
"And personally, for us, the pithy phrase of old man Joe is a reason to ponder, 'who is Mr. Putin? Is he a killer'?
"Of course, in the legal sense, Putin is not a murderer. He did not shoot or stab anyone. There is no documentary evidence that he gave such orders [to kill someone] or even approved such actions. And this fact, by the way, (if one was to search for historical analogies) distinguishes him from Stalin. However, Putin has ruled the country for twenty years and therefore is responsible for everything that happens in the country, including the murders. [He is responsible] for the fact that on Russia's territory there is Chechnya, where people disappear without a trace; for the fact that Russian mercenaries kill in Donbass, Syria and Africa; for the fact that in Russian prisons, isolation wards and penal colonies prisoners are being tortured to death; for the fact that [Boris Nemtsov] Putin's main opponent was assassinated near the Kremlin, and when the investigation was on the verge of fully solving the crime, the key figures simply didn't open the door (when investigators came to interrogate them) and at that stage it ended.
"Putin also bears a responsibility for the fact that the special services poison and assassinate people abroad and in Russia, (getting with the poison into the underpants of the victims, as it happened in Navalny's case). Putin is the guarantor of a system that is engaged in all these things. The situation is only worsening every year, so at whom can we point a finger if not at the country's most important person?
"But to say these things out loud, even indirectly, is perilous in Russia. And Biden doesn't mince words without a hoot about decorum and formality– just like a cowboy."
Anton Oreh (Source: Neinvalid.ru)
 See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 9243, Putin On Biden Calling Him 'A Killer:' 'When We Evaluate Other People, Or Even Other States And Nations, We Are Always Facing A Mirror', March 19. 2021.
 In Lyndon Johnson's classic put down of Gerald Ford, Johnson claimed that Ford was incapable of doing both simultaneously.
 Kommersant.ru, March 18, 2021.
 Translator's note the Russian zhvachka is a double entendre that means gum and cud. Biden like a cow is chewing his cud and being annoyingly repetitious.
 ["Peace. Friendship. Chewing Gum" is a cynical expression from Soviet times when Russians would stake out the tourist areas hoping for chewing gum. Peace Friendship Chewing Gum is also the title of a contemporary comedy drama set in the 1990s
 Mk.ru, March 17, 2021.
 Echo.msk.ru, March 17, 2021.