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18 March 2021updated 28 Jul 2021 6:47am

Joe Biden called Vladimir Putin a “killer“. Now what?

The US president has vowed to make his Russian counterpart pay for election interference, but little has so far changed the foreign policy equation.

By Emily Tamkin

“You know Vladimir Putin,” George Stephanopoulos of ABC News began a question to US president Joe Biden in an interview this Tuesday (16 March). “Do you think he’s a killer?”

“Mmhmm,” the president replied. “I do.”

Biden went on to say that he would make Putin pay for interfering in the 2020 presidential election: US intelligence believes Russia attempted to denigrate Biden’s candidacy. He also shared that he had a long conversation with Putin as president, in which Biden told him that he does not have a soul. (Putin, according to Biden, shot back, “We understand one another.”)

The US president telling his Russian counterpart he is a soulless killer who will pay a price is a dramatic revelation – and Russia has responded in kind. The Russian ambassador in the US has been recalled to Moscow for consultations. In televised remarks, Putin said of Biden’s killer comment, “it takes one to know one”,  adding, “I would say to him: I wish you good health.” The deputy speaker for Russia’s upper house of parliament, Konstantin Kosachyov, has demanded that Biden apologise and said that this is a “watershed” in US-Russia relations.

But is it?

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Rhetorically, it’s certainly a shift from Biden’s predecessor. Donald Trump was known for complimenting Putin, and famously said in 2018 that he didn’t see “any reason” why Russia would have interfered in the 2016 US presidential election (contradicting US intelligence on the matter). 

Biden’s comments also contrast with the approach of Barack Obama, who tried initially to “reset” relations with Russia, though he also eventually took to calling Putin a “thug”. 

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Yet in many ways, the Biden interview feels like simply the latest episode in a long deterioration of US-Russian relations, in which both sides have been playing to domestic audiences

The US, in the past several years, has put sanctions on Russia’s energy, finance, and defence sectors over its invasion of Ukraine in 2014; on individual Russians for interference in the 2016 presidential election; on Russians believed to be involved in the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who uncovered tax fraud; on Russians believed to be involved in human rights abuses more broadly; and has levied sanctions that prohibit lending non-ruble denominated funds to the Russian government over its suspected involvement in a 2018 chemical weapons attack in Salisbury, England. All of this excludes the additional sanctions placed over Russian activity with respect to North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela. 

Just this month, the Biden administration imposed sanctions over the poisoning of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny, with the Commerce Department announcing it will block the export of items related to national security. And the US could certainly put more sanctions still on Russia, as it is now reportedly preparing to do over election interference.

[see also: The persecution of Alexei Navalny reveals the weaknesses of Putin’s Russia]

To not attempt to extract a “price” from Putin is to risk appearing to accept such behaviour. But past sanctions applied by the Trump administration, after Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election, apparently failed to make a difference, and sanctions on Russian oligarchs have reportedly only pushed them closer to Putin and the Kremlin. Insofar as sanctions are meant as a foreign policy tool, they appear to be an increasingly unproductive one. 

The wider picture is also concerning. Russia and the US last month extended the New Start arms reduction treaty, lowering the temperature in at least one part of their relationship and keeping cooperation on arms control open. Yet the partnership on space is reportedly unravelling, the US has also already closed its last consulates in Russia, and US defence secretary Lloyd Austin is warning Nato partners about Russian aggression.

The US, in other words, has already been trying to make Russia pay a price. And that price – and the insults that go with it – aren’t changing the Russian foreign policy equation. It’s possible that this time could be different. But one has to wonder if Biden, having, as he said, known Putin for a long time, really believes it will be. 

[See also: Why Russians still choose Putin’s stability over Navalny’s revolution]