According to dozens of interviews with White House officials, members of Congress, and others involved in the effort, Biden deliberately worked with allies abroad to deprive the Russian leader of the face-to-face dynamic between Washington and Moscow that the president and his aides think Putin wants. Speaking publicly and privately about the war as a battle for freedom and democracy, Biden left other leaders to speak with Putin.
“What Putin is trying to do is encircle and encircle Kyiv,” said Representative Greg Mix, the Democrat and chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. What Biden is trying to do is get the whole world around Putin.”
Part of the lesson Biden drew from his participation as Vice President during Putin’s 2014 invasion of Crimea is that NATO countries will need a quicker, humiliating and cohesive response than months of infighting that led to sanctions so weak that Putin drove them out. However, administration officials privately admit that if Putin had invaded Ukraine a year ago, events might have happened quite differently after four years of ruinous relations for former President Donald Trump and his designation of NATO as obsolete.
During his 2020 campaign, Biden spoke about the confrontation he saw coming.
“Putin has one main goal: to break NATO, weaken the Western alliance, and reduce our competitiveness in the Pacific by working with China,” Biden told a CNN reporter at the time. “This will not happen in my watch.”
The last conversation between Biden and Putin was on February 12, more than a week before the invasion began. And for a president and his aides who complain about almost everything that they don’t get the credit they deserve, he and administration officials have evaded talk of Ukraine as the leader of the free world, despite the amount of sanctions and the international response. It is the result of Washington’s directives and pressure.
The result is that Putin has gotten caught up in more than Biden expected, along with a sustained level of interest in the war abroad and in America that has surprised White House aides — without relaunching an 1980s-style Cold War.
“Joe Biden has known Vladimir Putin for decades and knows exactly who he is dealing with,” said a senior administration official.
Putin cut – literally and figuratively
Putin’s impeachment, Biden might say, began literally.
Whenever they spoke, Biden was interrupting Putin when the Russian president began making complaints that US officials see as an educational tactic designed to distract and undermine.
No, Biden might say, that’s not what we’re talking about, according to a senior administration official who witnessed those conversations. Or, no, that’s not the way things happened 20 or 25 years ago, in whatever previous complaint Putin would have to justify his behavior.
“President Putin cannot use many of his common tricks with President Biden, such as trying to confuse people by delving into long history details or meandering into the details of policies because President Biden sees these tactics approaching a mile away and not taking the bait. He will try to get the president out. Biden took off the topic by citing a vague part of the Minsk Accords or a speech someone gave in the late 1990s,” a senior administration official said, adding that Biden “will always direct the conversation straight back to what he came to talk about.”
Biden often told the story of meeting Putin in the Kremlin in 2011, when he was vice president, and telling the Russian leader, “I look in your eyes and I don’t think you have a soul” — the categorical response to President George W. Bush’s infamous comments in 2001, gaining sense in Putin’s spirit by looking him in the eye and finding him “very straightforward and trustworthy”. By contrast, a Biden administration official sent CNN news about Biden’s history on the subject over the years, from calling Putin a “bully” in 2006 to calling him a “thief maniac” in 2019.
“He was very clear in that meeting that he thought Putin would,” the aide said. He spoke from the experience of someone who knows Putin and has dealt with Putin.
Biden learns from 2014 and the importance of unity
Biden did not – as some in his party would like – pursue Trump, provoke the attack on the 2016 election or attack Republicans for voting against the former president’s first impeachment when Trump lifted military aid to Ukraine – in pursuit of it. Dirt on Biden.
“The crisis in Ukraine shows what was at stake at the time, and there must be accountability for that,” said Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, chair of the House Democrats’ campaign arm. “I don’t think it makes sense to play politics with war. I think it makes sense to be a moral voice for what’s right and what’s wrong — and I’m proud that I belong to a party, we have the president, who knows the good and the bad of 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 have united. It is important that we send that signal to the world,” the White House aide said.
Most Republicans—with a few notable outliers, including Trump’s apparent struggle to try to erase the memory that his first response to the invasion was describing Putin as “smart” and “smart”—did not attack Biden, despite many differences between Republicans and Democrats. Both about the details of the president’s response.
However, Republicans were not convinced by the other part of Biden’s strategy: he described rising fuel costs as “Putin’s price hike” and a “Putin gas tax” as an attempt to placate voters.
“These are not Putin’s gas prices,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said last week. “They’re President Biden’s gas prices.”
On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell added, “Vladimir Putin is clearly not the cause of this rampant inflation.”
White House aides are tracking all the Republicans in the House and Senate who are calling for tougher sanctions on Russia — preparing to try to undermine them as hypocrites if they complain about rising gas prices during the election campaign this fall. But at the same time, Biden himself continued to communicate with Republican lawmakers.
This included giving a personal briefing to all four top leaders of Congress together last month and surprising a bipartisan delegation to the Munich Security Conference with an invitation to thank them for their support. During that call, Vice President Kamala Harris held her cell phone on a microphone so lawmakers could hear Biden speak from behind the desk in the Oval Office.
Putin has been tracking what Biden has been doing and saying for years. That includes friendly Russian commentators who complained in 2009 that Biden was a “gray cardinal” secretly orchestrating the Obama administration’s tough response to Putin’s leadership after the then-Vice President said Russia was limp, or a Kremlin spokesman said Thursday that Biden’s remarks were a war criminal. It was “unacceptable and unforgivable”.
Even as Biden has ramped up what he’s been saying about Putin, there’s still so far he can go before stumbling into the escalation he’s so desperately trying to avoid.
“It pains him to see the devastation in Ukraine,” said Meeks, “and it would be easy to say, ‘This guy is evil and we’re going after him and we’re going after him.’” The question is: Is this the right thing? Because then you’re talking about World War III.”
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