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Interview: NYT White House Correspondent On What Every President Gets Wrong About Vladimir Putin

 U.S. President Joe Biden (left) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin meet for a summit in Geneva, Switzerland, in June 2021.
U.S. President Joe Biden (left) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin meet for a summit in Geneva, Switzerland, in June 2021.

A bestselling author who is now covering his fifth administration as the White House correspondent for The New York Times, Peter Baker was a reporter in Moscow in the early days of the presidency of Vladimir Putin, who came to power in 2000. In an interview with RFE/RL, Baker discusses the response of the Biden administration to the war in Ukraine -- and the many miscalculations U.S. presidents have made about Putin.

RFE/RL: Do you think that the long-term U.S. support for Ukraine is guaranteed? And if it's not, what does it depend on?

Peter Baker: It's a good question. That's a real question in Washington right now. For the most part, there's a bipartisan consensus that the United States will stick with Ukraine for the foreseeable future. But that doesn't mean that there aren't signs of concern for Ukraine supporters. I mean, among other things, obviously, the new Republican majority in the House [of Representatives] has said that it will apply a more skeptical eye to future Ukraine aid. [Republican] Kevin McCarthy, who may or may not become the speaker [of the House of Representatives], depending if he gets the votes, has said no blank check going forward.

But even having said that, there's still, I think, a broad bipartisan consensus that Ukraine is important for the United States, that we're there for the long term -- [even though] it may not be at the same levels that it has been through 2022. There may be more of a fight about it going forward. But Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, has been very staunch in support of Ukraine, in support of the war against Russian invaders. And I think that there's a Putin caucus within the Republican Party right now, where it's oddly more pro-Russian than pro-Ukraine, which is surprising. But it's relatively small. So far.

Vladimir Putin (left) and U.S. President Donald Trump talk to each other during the Group of Twenty leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, in June 2019.
Vladimir Putin (left) and U.S. President Donald Trump talk to each other during the Group of Twenty leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, in June 2019.

Now, if former [U.S.] President [Donald] Trump were to regain the White House, then we have no idea. That's a whole different kettle of fish, because his friendship or his affinity for Putin is so unusual and unexplained…that we don't know where it would take us. But, for the moment anyway, I would say [in] the next two years, you can certainly imagine that the United States is going to stick pretty closely with Ukraine.

RFE/RL: As a chief White House correspondent, I'd like to ask you about U.S. President Joe Biden's handling of the war in Ukraine.

Baker: I'm sure there's plenty to criticize, but so far, he has been pretty strong in his support for Ukraine. He's kept the international alliance largely on the same page. He's kept domestic consensus here in the United States largely on the same page. He doesn't do everything Ukraine wants him to do. He has drawn lines. He is trying to find a balance, as he sees it, between being robust in support of Ukraine and helping Ukraine expel invaders without allowing the war to expand or escalate beyond Ukraine's borders horizontally, or into weapons of mass destruction vertically, into some sort of a nuclear exchange. And it's a delicate balance that he's trying to find there.

So, it is frustrating at times for Ukrainians because they would like to have some weapons that he has refused to give them. They would like the pace of weapons at times to be a little bit more expeditious. But broadly speaking, I think President Biden has made it clear that a defeat for Russia in Ukraine is a top priority and he is trying very hard not to allow Russia to drive a wedge between Washington and key European capitals, especially London, Berlin, France, Paris, and Warsaw and so forth.

RFE/RL: If I were to ask you for one thing that Biden deserves to be praised for the most, and similarly, one thing that he deserves to be criticized for the most, what would those be?

Baker: It's less about what I think, but what people who are experts think and what I'd say is, a lot of people who are smart about this would say that the revealing of intelligence in advance of the war, in advance of the invasion, was an unusual and effective strategy that we hadn't seen before. To call Putin on what he was trying to do before he did allowed everybody to understand what was about to happen. And secondly, [it] prevented Putin from creating a [justification] for this war that would be plausible. There was no, in the end, false flag operation that [the Kremlin] could set up that would give people [an explanation]: Well, they like to go in for this reason or that reason.

I think each American president, in his own way, over the last 22 years, hoped that they could manage Putin, and…they can't, they have not been able to

So I think that [the] revealing of the intelligence, in a way, surprised the Russians and kept them from creating this false narrative that they were the aggrieved party in some way. Now, they'll always say that anyway. But I don't think that there's very many people outside of Russia who believe that they are the aggrieved party. And I think that's partly because the Americans called them on it in advance of the invasion….

The part where [Biden] would get the most criticism here in Washington, at least, is not being as assertive as he could be in providing weaponry, both in terms of the scope, scale, and pace of it. There are a lot of people in Washington who would say: Well, I support what he's doing. But I wish he would do more.…. There is also a countervailing force in the Republican Party that's saying he's doing too much. That we're spending money overseas when we should spend it at home. Why do we care about the Ukrainians? Russia has a point, blah blah blah. But, broadly speaking, the most salient criticism of Biden's handling of Ukraine at home would be that he could have done more, faster, better.

RFE/RL: I'd like to ask you about the recent swap deal with Russia: Brittney Griner for Viktor Bout. How is exchanging a women's basketball star for a "merchant of death" a fair deal?

Baker: It's clearly a lopsided exchange. A basketball player, who at best had a minor drug offense, [and] the most notorious arms dealer of our generation are not equivalent. They are not even close…. [The] Russians have for years made [Bout] a martyr of Western American imperialism and overreach, and so he's been a symbol for them for a long time. I think the calculation on the part of the administration was: Yeah, this is a lopsided deal. We're not very happy with it. But [Bout] has served [time in prison], in [a few] years he will be released anyway, under the current sentence by 2029. He's older, he's less connected, he's not likely to become the threat that he was back in his youth. And therefore, it's probably a relatively manageable cost. In other words, that's their calculation.

I'm not saying it's right. I'm just saying that's what they were telling themselves, at least, and that there was a value to getting Brittney Griner back because she was a hostage and being used by Putin for illegitimate purposes and we're supposed to bring Americans home. A lot of people think that was an unwise swap, that one for the other was not equivalent and…will only encourage bad actors around the world to seize Americans in order to achieve the goals that they want to achieve, [or if] they want to get someone out of an American prison.

RFE/RL: What does America win out of this?

Baker: Well, I think the win for President Biden is that he got [Griner] home. Brittney Griner is very famous here, not in the political sense that Viktor Bout is famous [in Russia]. And there was a lot of attention paid to it. There was a lot of pressure on [Biden] to get her out. So, rightly or wrongly, she has a higher profile than other Americans who are being held overseas, including Paul Whelan. (Whelan is a former U.S. marine who was convicted of espionage charges in Russia and is serving a 16-year sentence). And that, of course, brings higher visibility to her case and higher pressure on a president to deliver.

RFE/RL: You've covered five presidents as chief White House correspondent for The New York Times. So, let me ask you this: whose Russia policy was the most sound?

Baker: It's interesting that you ask that as we've been thinking about that a lot. My wife (New Yorker staff writer Susan Glasser) and I were both correspondents in Moscow and have spent otherwise our careers in Washington. And I think each of the presidents, in some ways or another, miscalculated when it came to Putin, misunderstood him, tried understandably to find common ground with him only to discover each time that that's not possible, that he's not going to be the partner that they would like him to be.

Putin has, for whatever reason, warped that situation to create this idea that Russia was somehow threatened by the West. And it's a function of [Putin's] security-service background, it's a function of his personal paranoia, and it's a function of his domestic politics to create an enemy -- and we are the enemy that is most useful to him. 

[U.S.] President [Bill] Clinton, of course, had a better relationship with [Russian President] Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s. There are people who will argue that NATO expansion of the 1990s and the Balkans war against [Serbian leader] Slobodan Milosevic, pushed Russia away.

I think that's less the case than the failure of the democratic economic reforms of the 1990s. That was the bigger factor in pushing Russia away from the United States and emboldening a Putin to come along and declare his desire to be the world power that Russia had once been -- and not to be necessarily a partner of the United States.

So [U.S. President George W.] Bush, of course, wanted to make Putin a partner, saw his soul, came to regret that. By the time he left office, Bush was very clear-eyed about who Putin was. In one of my books, we have some private conversations he had with other foreign leaders, where he just expresses great frustration with Putin and how he was a tsar, as he put it.

Vladimir Putin (right) and U.S. President George Bush in February 2005.
Vladimir Putin (right) and U.S. President George Bush in February 2005.

[U.S. President Barack] Obama came in right after the [2008] Georgia war, and rather than take action or continue action to respond to that, he wanted to have a reset. It's understandable, of course. Every president wants to have a better relationship with Russia, and for a while it actually kind of did produce some decent results for Obama, but of course, inevitably, alienated Putin all over again with the Libya war…. And I think that the goal [of] working around Putin, which was Obama's thought, [that] he could work with [former Russian President Dmitry] Medvedev. It may have been a reasonable [idea] at the time, but it was ultimately a failed effort.

Trump, of course, is the outlier in the sense that he openly embraced Putin, he openly said Putin was to be admired. In fact, we have in our latest book, the scene after the Helsinki summit when he takes Putin's side over the American intelligence agencies. Back here in Washington, Dan Coats, who was the director of national intelligence, a Trump appointee, a former Republican senator, told people: Gosh, that means maybe in fact, the Russians really do have compromising material on Trump. How else can you explain Trump's affinity and affection for Putin? Because otherwise, it seems so imponderable.

And then Biden comes in. And I think a lot of people think he did some of the same things, again, in meeting with Putin in Geneva, thinking he could keep Russia in a box, in a foreign policy way, if he simply paid a little bit of attention to [Russia] while focusing most of his energy on China. Putin obviously was not going to go along with that. And so we end up where we are.

RFE/RL: Putin has been in power for over 20 years now. What do you think is the biggest strategic error that the United States has made during this time with Putin and with Russia in general?

Baker: I think, broadly, it was hoping and thinking that Putin was really going to be a friend, that he was going to be a Westernizer in a real way, that he really wanted to be part of the community of nations. And, yeah, there's an argument to be made that maybe he really did for a little bit at the very beginning. I'm dubious about that. I think he showed his colors from the very start with his consolidation of power at home, with his aggressiveness on Georgia and Ukraine, even in the early years. I think each American president, in his own way, over the last 22 years, hoped that they could manage Putin, and…they can't, they have not been able to, either because they haven't been strong enough or tough enough or persuasive enough or clever enough, or whatever word you want to use.

The Tavberidize Interviews

Since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Vazha Tavberidze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service has been interviewing diplomats, military experts, and academics who hold a wide spectrum of opinions about the war's course, causes, and effects. To read all of his interviews, click here.

RFE/RL: Why did everyone think that?

Baker: First of all, none of them was a Russia person, none of them spent any time really in Russia or understanding Russia. Most of them were domestic-oriented presidents who didn't have a lot of foreign policy experience. Biden is really the only one who had any foreign policy experience of any sort. And so I think that they just believed that Putin was like a Republican or a Democrat, that they could simply find a way to sit down with him and cut a deal, that they could work together on some level. And they just failed to understand that he was not that kind of person, they failed to understand his background in the KGB, his grievances over the collapse of the Soviet Union, and his paranoia over the CIA and the belief that the Western allies were out to get him. And I think that each one of them came in thinking, I can deal with him, because, you know, we'll just sit down, we'll be reasonable. And that's just not going to work with Putin.

RFE/RL: Let's talk about the latest speeches Putin has made. He made one of them with a glass of champagne in his hand, looking progressively tipsy. And, among other things, he discussed using preemptive strikes. How does that change the equation when it comes to the strategic thinking of the U.S. and Europe? What do you think he meant when he said preemptive strikes?

Baker: I think that the concern here is mainly nuclear. The conventional Russian military has been shown to be kind of a paper tiger. [That] doesn't mean they can't do great damage. Obviously, they're doing enormous damage, enormous devastation in Ukraine, but they are obviously not as effective as the Americans had believed them to be prior to February 24. (The date when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.)

But nuclear is a whole different issue. We have kept that genie in the bottle since 1945. Since the two bombs over Japan, no nuclear weapon has been used in anger since then. And the idea that he might open that box and use a nuclear device is the consuming worry in Washington. Because once you do that, you have no idea where it ends. And it's the danger of spiral that gets out of control, that most worries people in the White House that I talked to.

Obviously they don't want to see preemptive strikes in a conventional sense, for instance missiles against some base in Poland or the Balts or something like that. That's a great concern as well. But the nuclear thing is what keeps them up at night, because the question is then: what do you do? And I think their answer at the moment, the American answer, is not to respond nuclear for nuclear, because we don't want to get into that escalatory cycle where suddenly you're heading toward a Cuban Missile Crisis, a World War III scenario.

New York Time White House correspondent Peter Baker (file photo)
New York Time White House correspondent Peter Baker (file photo)

But would there be a conventional response to a nuclear attack, even within Ukraine, that would be decisive enough to stop it from happening again? And that's the kind of awful calculations that have to be made at this point, because you don't know for sure what Putin will do. And because when he says things like that, you can dismiss it as just saber rattling, but you shouldn't assume, because if you assume then you really can be caught off guard.

Every time I go to see a top administration official I ask, on a scale of one to 10, what is your worry about a nuclear event at this point. And I've gotten answers anywhere from four to six. And they think: four, well, that's not too bad. I think four is horrible. A chance of four out of 10 that there could be a nuclear event is mind-blowing and way too large, obviously way too dangerous, if that's where they think things really are. And, so far, knock on wood, that hasn't happened, but we can't guarantee it won't happen in the future.

RFE/RL: No matter how the war ends, even with some sort of Ukrainian victory, if Putin manages to keep hold of some of these lands he seized from Ukraine, could he really be considered a loser?

Baker: Any territory that Russia ultimately keeps that was Ukrainian prior to 2014 is in some ways a win for Russia, because they have redrawn the map. If they keep Crimea, if they keep the Donbas, then they have succeeded, at least in part, in carving off another country's territory. Now that may not be a win compared to what they thought they were going to get, and Americans and Ukrainians and Europeans will certainly look at getting back to the February 24 lines as a remarkable victory [for Ukraine] over an overwhelming power. And that's true because, certainly by this point in the year, Vladimir Putin would have expected to be in Kyiv, expected to have a friendly government there, even if he wasn't occupying the entire country….

The level of military defeat for Russia here is beyond what anybody would have predicted, I think. The American military, we all, everybody miscalculated, everybody overestimated their capacity. The American military thought…that they would have Kyiv under control within 10 days. They thought they would have the whole country [under control] within a few weeks. And they didn't think they would necessarily be able to control it that easily. There would be constant guerilla warfare. But they thought the Russians would be doing a whole lot better than they ended up doing. And, even just as recently as a couple of months ago, I remember them saying, well, the Ukrainians want to have a counteroffensive in the east this fall, but we're not really sure that's a good idea…we don't think they can really accomplish it. And they did. The Ukrainians have done a remarkable job of disproving everybody's expectations….

But you're right. Probably most people in the West would look at returning to February 24 lines as a pretty remarkable victory, and it is in a lot of ways, but you're right to say that, even then, letting Russia keep the territory that it took through use of force, illegitimately, still means they came away with something that shouldn't be acceptable in this day and age. First time since World War II we've redrawn the map of Europe, in the way that Russia is doing. That doesn't mean that [Ukraine] shouldn't look at a return to February 24 lines as a reasonable victory -- it is -- but it doesn't mean that we should also forget what Russia has done.

RFE/RL: What about this talk of "let's give security guarantees to Russia," which is championed by French President Emmanuel Macron.

Baker: This is a perennial tension between Washington and European capitals -- let's give Putin something that he wants, or off-ramps…. That I think continues the miscalculation about who Putin is. Security guarantees aren't going to do anything for him. He's not going to trust them. His security guarantee is: I am in charge of Kyiv. His security guarantee is: I am in control.

First of all, [Putin is] not going to believe any piece of paper. Look at what's happened with [the] Minsk [agreements]; that was pointless. (The agreements attempted to stop the war in the Donbas.) There is no way to satisfy Putin. And looking like that's what you're trying to do makes it seem like he had legitimate concerns to begin with, that somehow his actions in Ukraine were the result of a legitimate concern about Russian security, which is of course nonsense. Russian security was not jeopardized by Ukraine.

I understand that [Russia] didn't want Ukraine to join the EU or join NATO, but Ukraine was not a threat to Russia. Ukraine wanted a good relationship with Russia, even as it was trying to create a partnership with Europe. Because it's obviously in Ukraine's interest to have a good relationship with Russia. But Putin has, for whatever reason, warped that situation to create this idea that Russia was somehow threatened by the West. And it's a function of [Putin's] security-service background, it's a function of his personal paranoia, and it's a function of his domestic politics to create an enemy -- and we are the enemy that is most useful to him.

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    Vazha Tavberidze

    Vazha Tavberidze is a staff writer with RFE/RL's Georgian Service. As a journalist and political analyst, he has covered issues of international security, post-Soviet conflicts, and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations. His writing has been published in various Georgian and international media outlets, including The Times, The Spectator, The Daily Beast, and IWPR.