Biden’s strategy with Putin has been in the making for decades

According to a dozen interviews with White House officials, members of Congress and others involved in the effort, Biden deliberately worked with allies abroad to deny the Russian leader the individual dynamic Washington vs. Moscow that the president and his aides think Putin wants. Speaking publicly and privately about the war as a fight for freedom and democracy, Biden let other leaders talk with Putin.

“What Putin is trying to do is encircle and encircle Kyiv,” said Rep. Greg Meeks, a Democrat who serves as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “What Biden is trying to do is have the whole world surround Putin.”

Part of the lesson Biden learned from his involvement as vice president in Putin’s 2014 invasion of Crimea was that NATO countries would need a much quicker, more humiliating response. and more consistent than the months of infighting that produced sanctions so weak that Putin eliminated them. Yet administration officials privately admit that had Putin invaded Ukraine a year ago, events might have turned out very differently after former President Donald Trump’s four years of damaging dealings and calling obsolete NATO.

On the campaign trail in 2020, Biden spoke about the confrontation he saw coming.

“Putin has one overarching goal: to break up NATO, weaken the Western alliance, and further diminish our ability to compete in the Pacific by working with China,” Biden told CNN’s Gloria Borger at the time. “And it won’t happen under my watch.”

Biden’s last conversation with Putin was on Feb. 12, more than a week before the invasion began. And for a president and his aides who, on almost everything else, complain about not getting the credit they deserve, on Ukraine, he and administration officials dodged the fact that he was the leader of the free world, despite the magnitude of the sanctions and the international response are the result of advice and pressure from Washington.

The result is Putin locked in more than even Biden anticipated, along with a sustained level of war attention abroad and in America that caught White House aides by surprise — without reigniting a war. cold in the style of the 1980s.

“Joe Biden,” a senior administration official said, “has known Vladimir Putin for decades and knows exactly who he’s dealing with.”

Cut Putin – literally and figuratively

Cutting Putin began, as Biden might say, literally.

Every time they spoke, Biden would interrupt Putin as the Russian president launched into complaints that US officials saw as a whataboutism tactic designed to distract and undermine.

No, Biden would say, that’s not what we’re talking about, according to a senior administration official who witnessed the conversations. Or, no, that’s not how things were 20 or 25 years ago, regardless of what past grievance Putin cited to justify his behavior.

“President Putin can’t use a lot of his common tricks with President Biden, like trying to confuse people’s minds by going on long historical tangents or rambling through policy details because President Biden sees these tactics coming a mile away and doesn’t take He will try to distract President Biden from the subject by quoting an obscure section of the Minsk Accords or a speech someone gave in the late 1990s,” a senior said. administration official, adding that Biden is “always going to steer the conversation directly to what he came to talk about.”

Biden has often told the story of meeting Putin in the Kremlin in 2011, when he was vice president, and telling the Russian leader, “I look you in the eye and I don’t think you have a soul. — a cutting response to President George W. Bush’s infamous comments in 2001, getting a sense of Putin’s soul by looking him in the eye and finding him “very forthright and trustworthy.” A Biden administration official, by contrast, sent CNN highlights of Biden’s story on the subject over the years, ranging from calling Putin a “bully” in 2006 to calling him a “kleptomaniac.” in 2019.

A White House aide who was in the Situation Room for a rushed National Security Council meeting on February 10 said Putin’s sentiment of Biden was visible throughout the way he led the conversation in which the White House’s assessment of an invasion went from possibility to near certainty.

“It was loud and clear in that meeting that he believed Putin would do this,” the aide said. “He spoke with the experience of someone who knows Putin and has dealt with Putin.”

Biden learns from 2014 and the importance of unity

Biden thinks he wouldn’t be able to sustain current levels of unity — in the United States and around the world — if Putin triggered the kind of partisan meltdown he did in 2014, when many Republicans in high level spoke with admiration of his strength and leadership largely because he was up against Barack Obama.

Biden has not – as some in his party would like – sued Trump, raised the attack on the 2016 election or attacked Republicans for voting against the former president’s first impeachment when Trump took advantage from suspending military aid to Ukraine – to chasing dirt on Biden.

“The crisis in Ukraine clarifies what was at stake at the time, and there should be accountability,” said Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, chairman of the House Democrats campaign arm. “I don’t think it makes sense to play politics with a war. I think it makes sense to be a moral voice for what’s right and what’s wrong – and I’m proud to belong to a party, and we have a president, who knows the good guys and the bad guys in Ukraine. And the other side seems to struggle with that.”

This message will not come from the president himself.

“Putin wanted to divide us. We are united. It is important that we send this signal to the world,” the White House aide said.

Most Republicans — with some notable outliers, including Trump’s own clear struggle to try to erase the memory that his first response to the invasion called Putin “smart” and “learned” — didn’t not launch the attack on Biden, despite numerous differences between Republicans and Democrats over the details of the president’s response.

Republicans, however, were unconvinced of the other part of Biden’s strategy: calling the fuel price hike “Putin’s price hike” and “Putin’s gas tax” as an attempt to appease voters.

“It’s not Putin’s gas prices. It’s President Biden’s gas prices,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said last week.

On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell added, “It’s pretty clear that Vladimir Putin is not the cause of this runaway inflation.”

White House aides are following all House and Senate Republicans who are calling for tougher energy sanctions on Russia – preparing to try to undermine them as hypocrites if they complain about rising prices gasoline during the election campaign this fall. But at the same time, Biden himself has maintained contact with Republican lawmakers.

That includes the personal briefing of the four top congressional leaders last month and surprising a bipartisan delegation to the Munich Security Conference with a call to thank them for their support. During that call, Vice President Kamala Harris held her cell phone up to a microphone so lawmakers could hear Biden speaking from behind the desk in the Oval Office.

Putin has been following what Biden has been doing and saying about him for years. This includes friendly Russian commentators complaining in 2009 that Biden was a “grey cardinal” secretly orchestrating a tough Obama administration response to Putin’s leadership after the then vice president said Russia was limping, or a Kremlin spokesperson on Thursday saying Biden’s remark about the war criminal was “unacceptable and unforgivable.”

Even though Biden has stepped up what he has said about Putin, he can only go as far as he can go before falling into the escalation he is so desperately trying to avoid.

“It pains him to see the devastation in Ukraine, and it would be easy to say, ‘This guy is evil and we’re going after him and we’re going to get him,'” Meeks said. “The question is, is this the right thing? Because then you’re talking about World War III.”


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