While Russia is fighting a war in Ukraine with tanks and missiles, it is engaged in another war, one fought with words, with the U.S.
The back and forth between the two countries began earlier this week when President Biden labeled Russian President Vladimir Putin “a war criminal.”
Moscow fired back on Friday by raising questions about Mr. Biden’s cognitive abilities.
Both sides have escalated their rhetoric, underscoring how the clash between the U.S. and Russia has become a personal rivalry.
“It is not common during a war for presidents to talk like this,” said Robert Rowland, who teaches presidential rhetoric at the University of Kansas. “Usually presidents try to avoid personalizing an issue to make sure he or she was giving the other foreign leader an off-ramp.”
By describing Mr. Putin as a “war criminal,” Mr. Biden’s comments marked a shift in the rhetoric. He previously condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but stopped short of saying whether Mr. Putin had committed war crimes.
Mr. Biden doubled down on his comments the next day, calling Mr. Putin a “murderous dictator” and a “pure thug.”
“You have Ireland and Great Britain … standing together against a murderous dictator, a pure thug who is waging an immoral war against the people of Ukraine,” he said at a St. Patrick’s Day event at the Capitol.
The comments signal the administration’s new strategy of characterizing Mr. Putin as a brazen killer who should face a trial for war crimes.
Others in the administration have begun echoing Mr. Biden’s tough talk against Mr. Putin. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also called the Russian president a “war criminal,” while White House press secretary Jen Psaki called him a “brutal dictator.”
Mr. Rowland said the barbed words won’t help reduce tensions with Russia, but given how fractured the relationship is between the two nations, it’s not going to inflame them either.
“I’m not sure what option Biden has given what Putin is doing,” he said. “There are so many blatant attacks on civilians in Ukraine, how do you not call that out?”
Mr. Rowland compared Mr. Biden’s comments to former President Reagan’s remarks at his first press conference in 1981. Responding to a reporter’s question, Mr. Reagan denounced the Soviet Union as liars and thieves.
“It was shocking at the time that Reagan said that, but what he was saying was the truth and he thought it was important to say that,” he said.
The Kremlin hasn’t been holding back either. Kremlin spokesperson Dimitry Peskov offered a heated response to Mr. Biden’s remarks.
On Wednesday, Mr. Peskov said the U.S. had no right to call out Russia, pointing to its invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mr. Peskov said Mr. Biden’s comments were “unacceptable and unforgivable rhetoric on the part of the head of a state whose bombs have killed hundreds of thousands of people around the world.”
On Friday, Mr. Peskov got more personal. Speaking with reporters, he referenced Mr. Biden’s frequent gaffes at public events.
“Given Mr. Biden’s irritability, his fatigue and sometimes forgetfulness … which ultimately leads to aggressive statements, we probably will not give any sharp assessments so as not to cause more aggression,” Mr. Peskov said.