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President Joseph Biden’s response to the question of ABC’s George Stephanopoulos (‘Do you think Putin is a killer?’) with his simple, ‘Uh huh, I do’ was a diplomatic lapse. Throughout the most cynical and serial misdeeds of his presidency — the killing of British citizen Alexander Litvinenko and the poisoning of Sergey Skripal on British soil, the deployment of ‘polite little people’ who did not exist to Crimea, the military intervention in eastern Ukraine that did not take place, the obliteration of Aleppo and the perfection of new forms of political sabotage throughout the Western world — Putin has always remained mockingly diplomatic.
One might compare Biden’s off-hand answer to Reagan’s ‘Rambo’ comment at the start of his own presidency, and some will do so. But Talleyrand’s rebuke is more apposite: ‘it was worse than a crime; it was a mistake’. Listen to the sentences that follow Biden’s answer, and you will see that there was no intention of bringing down the curtain on diplomacy:
There’s that trite expression, ‘walk and chew gum at the same time’. There are places where it’s in our mutual interests to work together. That’s why I renewed the START agreement with him.
Read Nikolay Patrushev’s account of his two telephone conversations with his US counterpart, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, and you will form the same impression.
One of Biden’s charms and weaknesses is that he is never at a loss for words. He might just as easily have said, ‘that is not the kind of language that heads of state use about one another’. In an interview that afforded enough time to discuss tax credits, Saudi Arabia and the US-Mexico border, he might have added:
We have a problem with Russia because it believes it is entitled to determine the destiny of its neighbours, because it believes it is entitled to occupy and annex territory and because its wars in Ukraine and Syria have displaced millions of people. But we also have a problem because Russia strives to undermine our liberal democracies — by cyber attacks, internet fraud, money laundering, the stealing of data, the financing of political parties and the assassination of political opponents in foreign jurisdictions. None of this is acceptable. But so far, Russia has underestimated our determination and the resources at our disposal. We need to change that perception.
But he said what he did. In so doing, he shifted the focus from the conduct of the Russian state to personal invective. In other words, he unwittingly trivialised the issues that we face.
The etiquette of confrontation matters, not least because disputes with a peer military (and nuclear) power are potentially dangerous. The discourse of confrontation can never be cordial, but it must always be correct. Russians regard friendliness by an antagonist as an insult. They demand respect and do not confer it lightly on others. EU High Representative Josep Borrell might have learned something from his February visit to Moscow, but he did not earn any respect there. He would have profited from Mao’s advice to Zhou Enlai before a visit to the USSR: ‘treat them the way they treat you’. In fact we should treat them slightly better, because we claim and wish to be better. But ‘slightly better’ means that we should respond to abuse with steeliness rather than abuse. One US president who mastered this art was Richard Nixon. He was respected, even feared, but the Kremlin knew that he meant what he said and concluded that it could do business with him. There were echoes of this in Biden’s own meeting with Putin, which forms the most revealing part of his interview:
I said, ‘[I] looked in your eyes and I don't think you have a soul.’ And [he] looked back and he said, ‘We understand each other.’
Etiquette matters for a second reason. The Kremlin does not believe in our good intentions, and there is little possibility that it will. By the time of the 2014 supposed ‘coup’ in Ukraine, it had fused Western democracy promotion, NATO and EU enlargement, ‘colour revolutions’, military intervention and regime change into a single, over-arching threat assessment. Today it is almost axiomatic that the ultimate objective of the West, particularly of the United States is to change Russia’s system of governance. Even as sober an observer as Dmitry Suslov, latterly of the Council of Foreign and Defence Policy and now of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, has described the import of Biden’s policy as:
the open interference of the United States in the internal politics of Russia, the open, overt support of the Russian opposition and open statements about the advisability of regime change in Russia.
False as these perceptions might be — and they are not totally false — they are no longer falsifiable. When US Ambassador Averell Harriman in 1946 asked former Foreign Minister, Maxim Litvinov what his government could possibly do to reassure Stalin about its intentions, the latter tartly replied, ‘nothing!’ An objective observer probably would deliver the same retort today.
Nevertheless, the fact that a syndrome is incurable is not a reason to aggravate it. Today a question needs to be posed: is a change of regime in Russia a policy aim of the United States? Not a wish but a policy aim? If the answer is ‘no’, it would be wise for the President and his representatives to exercise caution in speaking about Russia’s internal affairs.
There are exceptions. Navalny’s poisoning and the package of US sanctions that ensued is one exception, because ‘the Secretary of State determined that the Government of the Russian Federation has used a chemical weapon against its own nationals, in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention’. Russian business practices — network rather than rules based, occasionally predatory and often opaque — become legitimate subjects of concern once they are exported. When Russian ‘private companies’ perform state tasks — from the notorious Internet Research Agency to the equally notorious Private Military Company Vagner — both the state and the entities in question should expect retaliation. The expansion of US/Western scholarship and exchange programmes, the relaxation of asylum and residency requirements for Russian citizens are US/Western prerogatives, and we should not answer for how we exercise them. But our official messages to Russia should be threefold:
- We will defend our normative jurisdiction as toughly as we defend ourselves from military incursions, both alone and with allies.
- If you want your state and economy to function as they now do, that is your business, and the best of luck to you.
- But the internal affairs of Ukraine and Georgia are not your business, and as long as those countries seek our help, they will receive it.
Otherwise, let us hope that the controversy aroused by the ABC interview will subside and the painstaking work of defining the ‘art of the possible’ with Russia will advance.