Earlier this month, in an interview with ABC News, President Joe Biden called Vladimir Putin a “killer” and said that he had told the autocrat, in a conversation some years ago, that “I don’t think you have a soul.” That sounds like a matter-of-fact description to me—although I would advise Biden to ignore Putin rhetorically and instead hit him and his inner circle (including their families) quietly and hard with massive sanctions, and, if need be, with a stinging cyberattack. In other words, instead of following the model of Biden’s ignominious predecessor with big talk and name-calling, it’s better to follow the model of Teddy Roosevelt: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”
To explain why I think it is the smartest course, let me first tell a little story.
Back in 2007-08, I was working on behalf of the Czech government on the “third pillar” of missile defense—the plans to emplace in Europe components of the U.S. system for defending against ballistic missiles, to protect both the United States and its European allies from attacks by rogue actors, most likely Iran. The Czech Republic was to host the radar station, while the interceptor missiles were planned for Poland. Unlike in Poland, the program was unpopular in Czechia, especially in poor and eastern regions that would later turn nationalist-populist and anti-EU.
Whenever I worked with our counterparts in the U.S. Congress, I was struck by the lack of awareness of the strategic situation in Central and Eastern Europe. For us in Prague, the program was above all an attempt to host a U.S. installation and in this way to strengthen the U.S.-Czech defense relationship against Russia. The missile shield itself was not aimed at Russia and everybody including Moscow knew that eleven interceptors in a silo so close to the Russian border would have been incapable of defending us against a massive attack of Iskander-class missiles. But politically, it was of great importance to have the American base near Prague, which of course was a prospect that Moscow hated.
And so Russia launched something even better than a missile—a massive disinformation campaign about the radar and American intentions. It poured illicit money into the opposing camp, which was full of naïve young anti-American activists, something I would have never expected in our formerly Communist country.
Our greatest worry, though, was not the activists or the Russians but the Americans. Or, more precisely, the Democrats in Congress and in the foreign policy establishment. I was shocked about how blasé they were about Russia. Granted, it was just before Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, but the contours of Russian revanchist foreign policy, full of nostalgia for the supposed greatness of the Soviet Union, were already visible. Yet whenever we tried to explain our worries to Democratic members of Congress, their staffers, or scholars from liberal-aligned think tanks, behind their polite condescending smiles I could sense a train of thought that started like this: “You poor unsophisticated post-Communist bastards, you just simply cannot help yourselves. Wake-up! The Cold War is over. Putin is no Brezhnev!”
I had already experienced a similar feeling a decade before that when I took part in various debates in the United States on the impending expansion of NATO in 1999. Many American “realists” cautioned against admitting into NATO the formerly Communist nations and moving the alliance so close to the border of Russian Federation. Lots of metaphors about a needless poking of the sleeping Russian bear were thrown around. Today, I shudder what would have happened if those critics had won the argument, Central and Eastern Europe were not part of the alliance, and Putin would have been—what exactly—perhaps better disposed to the West? That, you tell me, would have been the central strategic gain?
This kind of wishful thinking reached a pinnacle in the 2012 presidential campaign. After Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate, said that Russia was the United States’s greatest geopolitical foe, his opponent, incumbent president Barack Obama, mocked him during a debate: “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back, because, you know, the Cold War has been over for twenty years.” Romney was derided by the mainstream press and Democrats as if he were some sort of troglodyte warmonger.
And then, history made one of its funniest turns. Putin subverted Hillary Clinton’s campaign, played a not-negligible role in the election of Donald Trump, and Democrats became the greatest Cold Warriors of them all. (Only belatedly, in 2019, would Romney get some satisfaction when Madeleine Albright apologized to him during a congressional hearing, admitting that he had been right about Russia.)
Meanwhile, in order to defend Donald Trump, Republicans went squishy on Putin. They haven’t quite started calling him a conservative defender of Christian civilization (as they do Trump), but through their words and deeds over the last four years Republicans have become the party of Putin’s Russia.
So why do I think Biden should not call the killer “killer”? Because Putin actually likes it. There is nothing better for Putin and his clique than being taken seriously by the United States of America. He hated Obama for despising him as a regional actor and JV-team. The racist in Putin must have been boiling on the inside. He longs for the good old days of the Reagan-Gorbachev summits headlining every news bulletin on earth. Moscow does not take seriously the lowly pygmies like us the Czechs, Estonians, and Poles. Putin also secretly despises the Germans and Brits and is amused by the mildly pro-Russian Italians and French. But the Americans, that is a different story. During my missile-defense days, President George W. Bush invited Putin to see his dad at Walker’s Point, the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, in July 2007. It was a meaningless photo op, dubbed the “Lobster Summit” by the media, but Putin lapped it up. He loved it!
Being called killer by Biden does not deliver the same dopamine hit, but under the circumstances it would do. It enables him to grandstand, play Mr. Equanimous, and above all pretend for his domestic political audience that there are really just two global players, himself (tough and strong and vital) and Biden (whom Putin portrays as doddering).
Russia with its nuclear arsenal is of course an important player, but given the sorry state of its economy and misgovernance, it is more like a nuisance than real strategic threat to the United States and NATO. Putin knows it and suffers from this indignity. Anything that helps him cover up reality strengthens his stature and therefore his political power within his vast, beautiful but tragic country. While shaping his Russia doctrine, Biden should stay away from the “killer” talk and other labels for Putin, and instead just update Teddy Roosevelt for the digital age.