Russia has recalled its ambassador to the United States shortly following President Joe Biden’s comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Biden sat down with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos for a comprehensive interview earlier this week. The discussion turned to national security—in particular, the recent report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence positing that Putin “authorized operations” to influence the 2020 election in favor of Donald Trump. Biden said that Putin will “pay a price,” adding that he told Putin in a previous discussion to “be prepared” for repercussions if the allegations of Russian election meddling are verified.
Stephanopoulos proceeded to steer the discussion in a personal direction: “You said you know he doesn't have a soul.” Biden reciprocated by retelling the old anecdote of his earlier meeting with Putin: “I did say that to him, yes… I said, ‘I looked in your eyes and I don't think you have a soul.’ And he looked back and he said, 'We understand each other.'"
Not yet fully satisfied, Stephanopoulos pressed the point. “So you know Vladimir Putin. You think he's a killer?” Again, Biden reciprocated. “Uh-huh. I do,” he said, reiterating that Putin will pay a price for his “mischievous” deeds but also noting that the United States and Russia should be able to work together in areas of “mutual interest.”
On the day following Biden’s remarks, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova announced that the Kremlin had recalled Russia’s Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov. Antonov “has been summoned to Moscow for consultations in order to analyze what needs to be done in the context of relations with the United States," she said. Biden’s comments were not explicitly cited as the reason for Antonov’s recall, but the timing is unmistakable.
Putin responded to Biden’s comments during an appearance on Russian television later that week. “As he [Biden] said, we know each other personally. How would I reply to him? I would say: be well. I wish you good health,” Putin said. “I say that without any irony and not as a joke.”
“Each nation and every state has very hard, dramatic and bloody events in their history,” he continued. “But when we assess other people or even when we assess other states and other nations, we always sort of look in the mirror. And we always see ourselves there because we always attribute to other people that which we breathe ourselves and what we essentially are. And you know, I remember in my childhood, when we argued in the yard, we used to say: ‘I know you are, but what am I?’ This is no coincidence, this is not just a childish joke, it has a very deep psychological meaning.”
A key part of Putin’s response has been critically mistranslated by some Western sources. He did not say, as reported in some news coverage, “it takes one to know one,” a phrase commonly taken as an implicit admission of guilt. It is apparent from the full context of his statement that he is accusing Biden of baselessly projecting his guilt onto others.
The U.S. president’s comments triggered a storm of outrage in Moscow. Konstantin Kosachev, the deputy speaker of the Russian parliament’s upper house, wrote that Biden’s “gross statement sends any expectations for the new U.S. administration’s policy toward Russia down the drain.” Russian politician Andrei Turchak said that Biden’s comments are a “triumph of the political madness of the US and the age-related dementia of its leader. This is an extreme degree of aggression borne from impotence… this gross and shameless statement is a challenge to our entire country.”
Chairman of the State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin posited the unprecedented nature of Biden’s comments: “The US had different leaders, many of whom did not like Russia, but they all behaved responsibly. Today’s statement from Biden stands outside the realm of common sense. The leader of a country that positions itself as a vessel of democratic principles and morality cannot behave this way.” Volodin added in a social media post that Biden’s comments are an “insult to our citizens, who elected and support their president.”
There is widespread agreement in Moscow that Russia must retaliate somehow against Washington following Biden’s comments, but no consensus around a concrete policy response. A handful of Russian commentators have floated the idea of temporarily suspending the recently-renewed New START nuclear arms treaty as a punitive measure—there is no indication that the Kremlin, which has consistently supported the treaty’s extension, is entertaining such a drastic course of action. Igor Korotchenko, a member of the Defense Ministry's public advisory council, recommends boosting the number of Russia’s resident spies in the United States. Others have suggested more generally that the Kremlin should wind down its willingness to engage in constructive dialogue with the United States across a wide range of economic, military, and political fronts.
The Kremlin has yet to issue a formal policy response. It is not clear as of the time of writing if Antonov’s extended “consultations” in Moscow will be followed by any Russian initiatives to revise—and possibly scale down—the official U.S.-Russian diplomatic relationship.
Putin has, however, taken the unorthodox step of inviting Biden to a live discussion. "I’ve just thought of this now," he said to a reporter earlier this week. "I want to invite President Biden to continue our discussion, but on the condition that we do it actually live. But with no delays, directly in an open, direct discussion." Putin suggested neither an agenda nor a specific format for these prospective talks, but noted that a discussion between the world’s two leading superpowers would be “interesting for the people of Russia and for the people of the United States.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki demurred when asked about Putin’s offer of a discussion with President Biden. "I don’t have anything to report to you in terms of a future meeting," Psaki said. "I'll have to get back to you if that is something we're entertaining. I would say that the president already had a conversation with President Putin," she added.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov clarified on Friday that Putin’s offer was an attempt to preserve bilateral ties. “It makes sense to have a talk to maintain Russia-U.S. relations instead of trading barbs,” he said, adding that the live, public format would help defuse tensions. “Since Biden’s words were quite unprecedented, unprecedented formats can’t be excluded. President Putin proposed to discuss the situation openly because it would be interesting for the people of both countries.”
Mark Episkopos is the new national security reporter for the National Interest.