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After U.S. President Joe Biden said he believes his Russian counterpart is a killer, Vladimir Putin hit back with a schoolyard retort that translates as: “I know you are, but what am I?” Will Russia’s response stop there? And what does it mean for an already poisoned relationship?
Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward:
The Context Of The Question
In an interview almost 20 years ago, in the fall of 2001, American journalist Barbara Walters asked Russian President Vladimir Putin whether he had ever killed anyone – a “nice, pleasant question,” she later told late-night TV host David Letterman, adding, “I did not expect him to say, ‘Yes.’”
He didn’t: His answer was no.
At the time, the context of the question was more or less this: Putin had been a Soviet KGB officer for 16 years and headed its main successor agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), for about a year during a swift elevation that put him in Russia’s highest office on the last day of 1999, when President Boris Yeltsin stepped down and made him acting head of state.
His rise was aided by his leading role, as prime minister in the months before Yeltsin’s resignation, in pursuing a new war in Chechnya, the site of a devastating separatist conflict from 1994 to 1996. And to some Kremlin critics, his ascent was deeply clouded -- and remains so -- by questions about whether the FSB was behind the deadly apartment-building bombings that served as a catalyst of the Second Chechen War.
That war was the context of Putin’s boast, in September 1999, that Russia would “rub out” terrorists “in the outhouse” – a nod to criminal jargon and an early building block in the tough-guy image he has constructed over the years.
Two decades after Putin’s denial, U.S. President Joe Biden was asked in a TV interview whether he believes the Russian leader is “a killer.” His response: “Mm-hmm, I do.”
Between Putin’s interview with Walters and Biden’s with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, a lot of context has been added: Several journalists, activists, and politicians who challenged government Kremlin narratives and sought to expose wrongdoing by Putin or the Russian state more broadly have been killed or survived poisonings or attacks. And in several of these cases, relatives and associates of the victim contend that the Russian authorities have not pursued thorough investigations, at last in part due to concerns that the trail could lead too close to the Kremlin and Putin’s ruling apparatus.
The list of the dead includes investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, shot dead in 2006; whistle-blower Sergei Magnitsky, who died in jail in 2009; and opposition politician and former First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down on a bridge near the Kremlin in 2015.
It includes Aleksandr Litvinenko, a former FSB officer who co-authored a book blaming the FSB for the 1999 apartment-building bombings and died two months after Politkovskaya, following exposure to highly radioactive polonium-210 at a sushi restaurant in London. In 2016, a British judge who led an inquiry into the matter said he had concluded that “the FSB operation to kill Litvinenko was probably approved by” Putin.
The survivors now include Aleksei Navalny, perhaps Putin’s most prominent critic for the past decade, who was flown to Germany for treatment after a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning in August that he blames squarely on Putin and the FSB.
He was jailed upon return to Russia on January 17 and was soon sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison on what he says is an absurd parole-violation claim stemming from a 2014 conviction on financial-crimes charges he contends were fabricated to keep him out of electoral politics.
Russia’s response to Biden’s remarks was swift, sort of. Hours after they were broadcast, the Foreign Ministry said it was recalling Russia’s ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, to Moscow for consultations.
Perhaps deliberately, however, it did not say exactly what triggered the decision, which also followed the release of a U.S. intelligence report on Russian interference in the 2020 election that put Biden in the White House and the imposition of new restrictions on U.S. exports to Russia over chemical-weapons concerns related to Navalny’s poisoning with what Western labs and governments say was a variant of the combat-grade nerve agent Novichok.
A day later, after initial indications that Moscow might play down the “killer” remark – it was conspicuously absent from several state-media reports that tiptoed around the issue – Putin delivered a response.
Speaking in Crimea, the peninsula whose seizure by Russia from Ukraine in 2014 plunged Moscow’s relations with the West to new lows, Putin hit back at Biden with a Russian schoolyard retort that is similar to several American schoolyard retorts, including “I know you are, but what am I?” and “I’m rubber, you’re glue. Everything you say bounces off of me and sticks to you.”
'Very Deep Meaning'
Putin’s words swiftly spawned a wave of mocking memes on the Russian-language Internet – on top of the wave of memes playing off Biden’s remark a day earlier -- but the Russian president seemed to see it as both a humorous jibe and a serious point: “It’s not just a children’s saying and a joke; it has a very deep psychological meaning,” he said.
How much impact Biden’s brief response to the “killer” question will end up having on already severely strained relations remains to be seen, but one thing seems clear: Putin and his government will use it to advance their narrative, including the assertion that Moscow is ready for better relations but Washington is not.
"These statements from the president of the United States are very bad. It is clear that he does not want to get the relationship with our country back on track, and we will proceed from that," Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters.
Biden’s remark “feeds into Putin's legitimacy narrative” by portraying him as “America’s evil ‘other,’” Sergei Radchenko, a historian of the Cold War and later eras and a professor at Cardiff University in Wales, wrote on Twitter. “The Russian president's swift reaction shows his intention to use such trope to full advantage.”
By evening, Putin was challenging Biden to a live “direct discussion” online, proposing March 19 or March 22 as the date for the showdown. The weekend was out, he said on state TV, because he wants to “relax a little in the taiga.”
Observers pointed out that Putin has declined to debate political rivals at home, and Moscow-based foreign policy analyst Vladimir Frolov tweeted: “A proposal designed to be declined by the US side to score some cheap points [by suggesting that] Biden is too unfit to debate Putin and shies away from a real confrontation.”
Whether the latest tension will lead Moscow and Washington closer to a major confrontation is unclear, and will depend in part, of course, on how Russia chooses to handle the situation.
In the ABC interview, Biden said that the United States can “walk and chew gum” at the same time – meaning that it can criticize Putin and his government while pursuing cooperation in areas where it is deemed both desirable and possible.
Fyodor Lukyanov, a Russian foreign policy analyst who advises the Kremlin, urged Moscow to take action beyond recalling the ambassador. In an article in the daily Kommersant -- headlined Don’t Chew While Walking -- he suggested that the United States believes it will face “no serious consequences” for its conduct, and that this has to change.
“It would be logical to fully freeze relations with the exception of a few needed technical aspects," Lukyanov wrote. The goal, he added, would be to disabuse the United States of “its conviction that it can behave arbitrarily in most areas while maintaining useful interaction in certain areas that are important [to Washington].”
Commentator Konstantin Eggert said that Russia might decide to take little action, in part because of concerns about its vulnerabilities.
Putin “may pretend to take Biden's remarks as a kind of compliment -- the reputation of a real villain is preferable to the image of a weakling,” Eggert wrote in a commentary for Deutsche Welle. “After all, Putin is aware of the limits of the financial, economic, military, and political possibilities of confrontation between 'his' Russia and the United States.”
On the other hand, he wrote, Putin might decide to retaliate. If he does so, it might be though indirect blows: a further crackdown on the Russian opposition, pushing ahead with efforts to restrict U.S. access to U.S.-based Internet platforms such as Twitter, or a renewed escalation of hostilities in eastern Ukraine, where Moscow has backed separatist militants since 2014.
From Putin’s remarks, it’s hard to tell what might happen, if anything. As is often the case, he made a splash with his schoolyard retort, as well as with a comment in which he wished Biden good health – and, to the ears of many listeners, made clear that this was not a straightforward comment by stating clearly that it was.
But on the surface, at least, he gave no indication of a major change of tack in ties with Washington, saying little beyond repeated promises that Russia will act based on its own national interest and not those of the United States or anyone else.
“We will work with them, but in those areas where it is in our interest, and under conditions that we consider beneficial to us – and they will have to reckon with it,” Putin said.
While he adorned those pledges in an eye-catching assertion that Russia is “different,” its citizens set apart by “a different genetic and cultural-moral code,” the vow to pursue one’s own interest and not those of another country were unremarkable.
Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote on Twitter that a “thorough review & revision of Moscow’s policy toward [Washington] are likely," adding that the Kremlin may have concluded “that nothing useful can be done with this U.S. administration beyond avoiding inadvertent [military] collision.”
But he suggested Putin’s demand that the United States deal with Russia on the Kremlin’s terms might not mean much in practice.
“[M]aking [the United States] take [Russia’s] interests into account,’ as Putin has promised, is unlikely to happen without some dramatic showdown,” Trenin wrote in a Twitter thread on March 18. “What we are seeing is not a crisis in itself, but clear descent to even lower depths of the US-RUS interaction.”
Aleksei Naumov, an analyst with the Russian International Affairs Council, said that Moscow would be wary about ripping a much deeper rift in relations with Washington.
“It’s clear that a severe confrontation with the United States is not in Russia's interests -- and it is much less in Russia's interests than it is in the interests of the United States, although the United States also does not need a complete break with Russia,” Naumov told Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at Kings College London, also suggested that Russia has more to lose from a big break in relations than the United States does.
“Washington does not believe that there is much to be gained from partnership with Moscow, outside (maybe) of arms control,” Greene wrote on Twitter. “Is that justified? Maybe, maybe not -- or maybe not always. But that is Washington's final analysis.”
“The Biden administration believes there is precious little that Washington wants that Moscow can deliver, and even less that Moscow would actually be willing to deliver,” he wrote.