- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 18, 2021

The already chilly U.S.-Russian relationship descended into a rhetorical and diplomatic deep freeze Thursday when Vladimir Putin bristled at President Biden’s claim that he is a “killer.” The Russian president invoked the atomic bombings of Japan, slavery and the killings of American Indians in a stunning broadside against the White House and America as a whole.

Russian officials and lawmakers rushed to condemn Mr. Biden’s remarks and, in a highly unusual move, Moscow’s ambassador to the U.S. was hastily recalled for “consultations.”

The rapid fallout from Mr. Biden’s seemingly off-the-cuff remark, offered during an interview with ABC News this week as he referred to poisonings of Putin political rivals, had some wondering whether Mr. Biden appreciated the force of his language. Although the White House defended the remarks and the administration’s pursuit of a tougher stance against Russia, specialists say the back-and-forth has left already strained bilateral relations in an incredibly fragile, uncertain state.

“Things are not in a good place, and how we climb out of this hole is going to be difficult,” said Jim Townsend, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy during the Obama administration. “It’s certainly not going to be forgotten, and it’s not going to blow over.”

Recalling an ambassador, he said, “particularly between these two countries, is a big deal. How this plays out, I don’t know.”

The delicate state of play between the U.S. and Russia could have far-reaching consequences. Despite its reduced state compared with the Soviet era, Russia is the world’s second-largest nuclear power, a veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council, a global energy powerhouse and a significant player in Central Asia, the Middle East, East Asia and Iran.

Even as the war of words escalated Thursday, U.S. officials were attending a multilateral peace conference organized by the Kremlin seeking to save the sinking peace process in Afghanistan. The two nations also have expressed hope of working together on arms control efforts such as an extension of the New START nuclear agreement.

Mr. Biden said there are key areas where the U.S. and Russia must collaborate, but the deepening rift imperils those efforts.

Mr. Biden did not volunteer the word “killer” during his interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. But as the two men were discussing the poisoning of key Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, an incident the administration has pinned on Mr. Putin, Mr. Stephanopoulos asked whether Mr. Biden believes the Russian leader fits that description.

“I do,” Mr. Biden said, also citing intelligence community conclusions that Russia interfered in the 2020 presidential election, the SolarWinds hack of the U.S. government and private industry, and other “mischievous things.”

Mr. Biden related an incident when, as vice president, he told Mr. Putin to his face that the Russian leader, a former KGB officer, lacked a “soul.”

Mr. Putin clearly did not appreciate the message.

The Kremlin issued its first response late Wednesday when the Russian Embassy in Washington announced that its ambassador would return home by the weekend.

“The current situation is a result of the deliberate policy of Washington that during the past years was making steps to bring — in essence, intentionally — our bilateral interaction into a deadlock,” the embassy said in a statement.

Russian officials suggested that additional fallout may be coming.

“These statements from the president of the United States are very bad,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “It is clear that [Mr. Biden] does not want to get the relationship with our country back on track, and we will proceed [based on] that.”

Konstantin Kosachev, a leading foreign policy voice in the Russian national legislature, called Mr. Biden’s personal remarks a “watershed moment.”

“This gross statement sends any expectations from the new U.S. administration’s new policy toward Russia down the drain,” he said.

Mr. Putin, meanwhile, seemed to take the “killer” comment personally and responded with anger and bemusement. He cited a rhyme from his childhood that observed: “The name you call [someone] is what you are yourself.”

“It’s not just a rhymed childish joke; it has a deep psychological meaning. We see our own qualities in another man, we think he’s like us and judge him accordingly,” Mr. Putin added.

The Russian president also brought up the U.S. nuclear bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima during World War II, along with instances of racism and oppression in America’s past. He stepped back from the brink when asked what he would say to Mr. Biden directly.

“I would tell him, ‘Be well.’ I wish him health, and I say that without any irony or joking,” he said.

At an event later Thursday to celebrate the annexation of Crimea, Mr. Putin suggested, perhaps ingenuously, that it might be time for direct talks between him and Mr. Biden.

“Last time, President Biden initiated a call, and now I would like to offer President Biden to continue our discussions,” Mr. Putin said. An “open, direct discussion” in the next few days would be “interesting” for people of both countries, the Russian leader added.

Useful corrective

The White House said it will be direct in its communications with Russia by calling out malign behavior such as the apparent poisoning of Mr. Navalny and election interference efforts. Administration officials say the tough language from Mr. Biden is a useful corrective to what they see as President Trump’s overly accommodating approach to Mr. Putin.

“President Biden has known President Putin for a long time,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Thursday. “They’ve both been on the global stage for a long time, worked through many iterations of a relationship between the United States and Russia. And he believes we can continue to do that.”

Ms. Psaki also dismissed Mr. Putin’s “It-takes-one-to-know-one” response. She said the U.S. does not shy from examining its own shortcomings.

“The president believes that one of the greatest attributes of the United States is our honest self-reflection and our constant striving for progress and there’s always more work to do,” she said.

Mr. Biden insisted in the ABC interview that Washington could “walk and chew gum at the same time” with Russia in “places where it’s in our mutual interest to work together.”

The administration has sent clear signals that it thinks it can compartmentalize aspects of its relationship with Russia by working with the Kremlin on Afghanistan and Iran while taking a tough stance when needed.

In the aftermath of Russia’s recall of its ambassador, Secretary of State Antony Blinken again condemned Russia’s planned natural gas pipeline to Germany, Nord Stream 2, and said the U.S. was weighing financial penalties if the project goes forward.

“The department is tracking efforts to complete the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and is evaluating information regarding entities that appear to be involved,” he said in a statement. “The department reiterates its warning that any entity involved in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline risks U.S. sanctions and should immediately abandon work on the pipeline.”

Some analysts say the administration’s approach to Russia stems from the involvement of Mr. Biden, Mr. Blinken, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and other key figures in the ill-fated diplomatic “reset” with Russia in the early days of President Obama’s tenure. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton famously presented her counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, with a red “reset” button.

Those olive branches bore little fruit. In subsequent years, Mr. Putin annexed Crimea from Ukraine, intervened militarily on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Assad in his country’s civil war, reportedly directed a plan to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and took other steps to cause chaos and undermine America around the world.

Those lessons, Mr. Townsend said, have formed Mr. Biden’s attitude toward Russia.

“Biden was making very clear he was not going to do a Hillary Clinton reset,” Mr. Townsend said. “The crew around Biden, like Blinken, like Jake Sullivan, they were burned by the Russians during the Obama days as much as anybody else.”

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