The “killer” Exchange

By accident, coincidence or design (or a combination of them), US-Russia relations are administered a jolt whenever they show the slightest signs of a thaw. This time, the jolt came from a March 15 decision of the US Director of National Intelligence to declassify a January 2021 US intelligence assessment that President Putin had authorized operations to denigrate Candidate Biden, support President Trump, undermine the elections and divide US society – in the effort to influence the 2020 US elections.

When asked in a TV interview whether President Putin would pay a price for this, President Biden said he would. He said he had told Putin in their telephone conversation that if all this is established, “be prepared”. He went on to say the secret of dealing with foreign leaders is to “know the other guy”. To the follow-on question – whether he thought Putin is a killer, he responded, “Mmhmm [sound indicating yes], I do”, adding, “the price he’s going to pay, you’ll see shortly”.

Russian reactions to these words ranged from strong disapproval to intemperate rage. The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, described Biden’s words as “unprecedented”, declaring that Russia would henceforth proceed from the assumption that the US President does not want to improve relations with Russia. The Russian embassy in Washington said that the “ill-considered statements of high-ranking US officials have put the already excessively confrontational relations under the threat of collapse”. Political figures of various persuasions described it as maligning, not only Putin, but also Russia and its people. In a commentary titled, “Biden crosses a red line”, the Russian government daily, Rossiskaya Gazeta, wondered whether the offensive words were well-considered, or “a consequence of old age”, going on to more explicitly allege “irreversible dementia”. Other unprintable epithets were hurled at the US President in social and other media.

The Russian foreign ministry took the rare step of “recalling” the Russian Ambassador in the US for “consultations…to analyse what needs to be done in the context of relations with the United States”. Such a recall is rare in diplomatic practice, reserved only for situations of extreme bilateral tensions. The Russian MFA spokeswoman said Russian departments will discuss with the Ambassador how to prevent “an irreversible deterioration” in Russia-US relations, which the US has taken to a “blind alley” in recent years.

As expected, President Putin did not let this personal attack pass. Asked about it, he said his first response to his US counterpart would be to wish him good health. Though he added that this was not a tongue in cheek remark, it was an obvious reference to US media comments on recent physical and verbal missteps of the US President. Putin went on to philosophize that when people or nations evaluate others, they are really projecting their inner selves on to the other side. This, he said, was the psychological truth in children telling each other during an argument, “what you called me is what you yourself are”. This long-winded exposition was what the media snappily (and not entirely inaccurately) summarized as, “it takes one to know one”.

Putin did not stop with this. He went on to establish the “killer” credentials of the American nation, starting with the colonization of the continent by Europeans, “extermination” of local Indian tribes (“outright genocide”) and cruel slavery practices (“otherwise, where would the Black Lives Matter movement come from?”). Moving on to more modern history, Putin recalled that the US was the only country to have ever used nuclear weapons, when there was “absolutely no military need” for it, resulting in “extermination of civilians”.

At a later event, Putin publicly invited Biden to a live public debate on US-Russia relations, suggesting two possible dates in March for it. This extraordinary suggestion obviously did not find a positive response. Asked about it, President Biden reportedly responded, “I’m sure we’ll talk at some point”. The Russian MFA bemoaned the fact that one more opportunity had been missed to find a way out of the deadlock in relations, created by Washington.

To come back to the US intelligence assessment, it did not see, unlike in 2016, persistent Russian cyber-efforts to access the election infrastructure. However, it judged that President Putin had personally authorized the “influence narratives” pushed by “proxies linked to Russian intelligence”.  So charged has the US-Russia atmosphere become that efforts to influence public opinion through publicly available media are considered punishable subversion. Also, those near the corridors of power in Russia would question the implicit conviction that not a blade of grass moves in Russia without the explicit approval of Putin.

But the most remarkable element in the intelligence assessment is the “high confidence” of the US intelligence community that China did not deploy interference or influence efforts in the run up to the US elections. The assessment is that, since China believes the bipartisan consensus against it in the US would influence any administration, it did not view either election outcome as being of sufficient advantage to risk being caught meddling. In other words, China showed the good sense of not deploying its sophisticated perception-management machinery, while Russia did not – despite the fact that the bipartisan consensus in the US against Russia is stronger than that against China.

These assessments are in line with the pervasive narrative, across political, official, military and intelligence circles in the US, that China pursues its national interests single-mindedly and its actions are based on a rational risk-reward analysis – whereas Putin’s Russia is an irrational and irresponsible actor, violating international law and disrupting the world order, even at the cost of its own reputation and national interests. There is often a predisposition to see acts of commission and omission of Russia and China through this prism.

In the same TV interview in which he promised Putin would pay a price, Biden invoked the image of simultaneously walking and chewing gum, to say that the US would also cooperate with Russia, wherever it is in its national interest to do so (the renewal of new START being an example). Putin also, after philosophizing on Biden’s appellation and having delivered his history lesson, responded to this by declaring that Russia will also work with the US, but on its terms. Rossiskaya Gazeta noted that, given the charged bilateral atmosphere, there may be a tacit bilateral understanding that such dialogue as takes place remains little-advertised, so as not to attract political controversy.

Written by Ambassador PS Raghavan,Former Indian Ambassador to Russia and published originally in and being reproduced with due permission from Ananta Centre, 2 Institutional Area, Lodi Road, New Delhi duly acknowledging their copy rights.

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