Anton Troianovski

March 18, 2021

The New York Times


MOSCOW — President Vladimir V. Putin dryly wished President Biden “good health” on Thursday after the American leader assented to a description of his Russian counterpart as a “killer,” and long-running tensions morphed into a furious exchange of trans-Atlantic taunts.

The previous evening, Russia took the rare step of recalling its ambassador to Washington after Mr. Biden’s comments in a television interview, warning of the possibility of an “irreversible deterioration of relations.” On Thursday, seated in a gilded chair on the seventh anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Mr. Putin all but called Mr. Biden a killer himself.

“When I was a child, when we argued in the courtyard, we said the following: ‘If you call someone names, that’s really your name,’” Mr. Putin said, quoting a Russian schoolyard rhyme. “When we characterize other people, or even when we characterize other states, other people, it is always as though we are looking in the mirror.”

Despite Mr. Biden’s long-running criticism of Mr. Putin, some Russian analysts had voiced hope that the Kremlin could forge a productive working relationship with the new administration in Washington on areas of common interest. But Mr. Biden’s combative stance in an interview with ABC News that was broadcast on Wednesday seemed to puncture those hopes, even as many of Mr. Putin’s critics praised the American president’s comments.

In the interview, when asked whether he thought Mr. Putin was a “killer,” Mr. Biden responded: “Mmm hmm, I do.” He further pledged that Mr. Putin is “going to pay” for Russian interference in the 2020 election, which was detailed in an American intelligence report this week.

Earlier this month, the Biden administration announced sanctions against Russian officials after declassifying an intelligence finding that Russia’s domestic intelligence agency had orchestrated the poisoning of the opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny.

At the White House on Thursday, Jen Psaki, the press secretary, shrugged off the recall of the Russian ambassador, noting that the American ambassador to Moscow, John J. Sullivan, was still in place.  Asked if Mr. Biden regretted his somewhat undiplomatic characterization of Mr. Putin, she said, “Nope. The president gave a direct answer to a direct question.”

Ms. Psaki repeated warnings that sanctions and other actions against Russia are coming “in weeks, not months.” Still, she acknowledged that sanctions have had a limited impact: Some imposed on Russia after its seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 remain in effect, but after seven years they have not succeeded in forcing it to return the territory.  “There are a range of other tools at the disposal of any president, seen and unseen,” Ms. Psaki said, “and we’re not going to get ahead of the process of what considerations are underway.”

To the Kremlin, Mr. Biden’s interview offered a fresh opportunity to highlight its confrontation with the West for its home audience — a useful tool at a time of broadening domestic discontent over a stagnant economy and official corruption.

Mr. Putin has painted Mr. Navalny and other Kremlin critics as Western agents on a mission to destroy Russia. And polls show that Russians remain far more likely to trust Mr. Putin on foreign policy than

they do on domestic affairs.   “This is a watershed moment,” Konstantin I. Kosachev, the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Russia’s upper house of Parliament, wrote in a post on Facebook on Thursday in reference to Mr. Biden’s interview. “Any expectations for the new U.S. administration’s new policy toward Russia have been written off by this boorish statement.”

Mr. Kosachev warned that Russia would respond further, without specifying how, to Mr. Biden’s comments “if explanations and apologies do not follow from the American side.”

As if to underscore the anger in Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry said late Wednesday that it had summoned its envoy in Washington, Anatoly I. Antonov, to Moscow “in order to analyze what needs to be done in the context of relations with the United States.” Russia last recalled its ambassador to Washington in 1998, to protest American airstrikes against Iraq.

“We are interested in preventing an irreversible deterioration in relations, if the Americans become aware of the risks associated with this,” Maria V. Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman, said in a statement.

On state television, news programs devoted extensive airtime to describing Mr. Biden as confused and out of touch, while politicians lined up to voice their anger and threaten a response.

Pyotr O. Tolstoy, the deputy chairman of the lower house of Parliament, thundered that “the only language” that Americans understand “is, unfortunately, the language of force.” Another senior lawmaker, Andrei A. Turchak, described Mr. Biden’s utterance as “a challenge to our entire nation.” “Conservative American journalists already suspected that Biden has dementia during the campaign,” a reporter intoned in prime time on the state-run Channel 1. “Over time, these suspicions have only intensified.”

Mr. Putin, in his comments on Thursday, picked up on the notion being pushed by the Kremlin’s news media that Mr. Biden was somehow unwell.  “I would tell him: Be healthy,” Mr. Putin said, in response to a question about Mr. Biden’s comments posed by a woman in Crimea in a televised video conference on Thursday. “I wish him good health. I say this without irony, without joking.”

On Thursday evening, Mr. Putin appeared to try to tamp down tensions, and said he would direct officials to set up a phone call with Mr. Biden in the coming days because “we can and we must continue to have relations.”

Addressing another flash point between Moscow and Washington, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on Thursday said the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, between Russia and Germany, was a “bad deal,” echoing Mr. Biden’s resistance to the project.

The pipeline would reroute Russian natural gas exports to Europe under the Baltic Sea and bypass Ukraine. The project has been opposed by U.S. lawmakers on the grounds that it gives Moscow a stronger hold on Europe’s energy sector and stands to deny Kyiv billions of dollars in revenue from transit fees. The Trump administration also opposed the $11 billion project, which is led by Russia’s Gazprom.

Mr. Blinken said the United States, which has already placed sanctions on companies involved in building the pipeline, is monitoring which entities are still involved, and indicated they may be punished.  “The Department is tracking efforts to complete the Nord Stream 2 pipeline,” Mr. Blinken said, “and is evaluating information regarding entities that appear to be involved.”

An escalation of tensions with the West has often accompanied domestic crackdowns by the Kremlin, which claims that the United States is secretly backing opposition politicians in Russia in order to weaken Mr. Putin.

For instance, Russia’s internet regulator warned this week that it was preparing to block access to Twitter in the country entirely starting in one month, after restricting access to the American social network last week.

Some Western intelligence agencies have accused Mr. Putin, among other things, of ordering the assassination attempt of his most vocal domestic critic, Mr. Navalny, by a military-grade nerve agent in Siberia last year. Mr. Putin has denied playing any role in that near-deadly poisoning, quipping in December that if Russian agents had wanted to kill the opposition leader, “They would have probably finished the job.”

The Russian government has also been linked to attacks on foreign soil, including the poisoning of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England, in 2018 and the shooting death of a former commander of Chechen separatists in Berlin the following year.

Mr. Putin signed a law in 2006 legalizing targeted killings abroad — legislation that Russian lawmakers said at the time had been inspired by American and Israeli conduct.


Susan Beachy and Sophia Kishkovsky contributed research; David E. Sanger, Glenn Thrush and Pranshu Verma contributed reporting from Washington.