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Putin, from thug to war criminal

The president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, and of the United States, Joe Biden.

“I don’t think you have a soul,” Biden told the Kremlin leader, and the Kremlin replied, “We understand each other.”

Joe Biden is the fifth president to deal with Vladimir Putin, who has been in power for twenty-two years. Unlike his predecessors, she had no illusions, she knew him well. First as a senator, heading the Committee on Foreign Relations, and then as vice president of Barack Obama. “My hope and expectation is that we will be able to work ‘a modus vivendi,'” he said last April, when he announced the expulsion of Russian diplomats for election interference.

He still hoped that they could have “stable and predictable relationships” based on direct communication, but he was wrong. Since coming to power, both leaders have spoken on the phone three times, the last on February 12, a day after Biden told the world that Russia would invade Ukraine after the Paralympic Games in Beijing. The Kremlin described the conversation, which lasted more than an hour, as “business”, despite the “unprecedented atmosphere of hysteria” it said it saw in the US.

Moscow still cynically denied that it was going to invade Ukraine, but Washington was clear about its plans. Intelligence could fail in the speed of the Taliban to take Kabul or in the determination of President Ashraf Ghani to defend it, but it has been studying Putin hard for three decades.

Bill Clinton saw him as “hard and cold”, he wrote in his memoirs, but Boris Yeltsin, suffering from health problems and severe alcoholism, convinced him that his successor “was sufficiently committed to democracy” and could “modernize”. Russia, find “an honorable solution” to the Chechen problem and manage the country’s economic and political turmoil. He would soon discover that he was a cold and pragmatic guy.

When he met him in November 1999 during his last trip as president to the Asia Pacific summit, the former KGB director had “no interest in discussing any political issues with that ‘lame duck’.” He just wanted to know who he would have to deal with, when the endless electoral count was over.

By the time he met George W. Bush for the first time, Putin had prepared a story with which to overcome his skepticism: that of a crucifix that his mother would have given him, the only object that would have survived the fire in his country house. “I have looked into his eyes and I have seen his soul: he is a direct and trustworthy guy,” he declared after that meeting in June 2001. Senator Biden publicly protested: “I do not trust Putin.” “I hope the president was talking about a matter of style rather than substance.”

Six years later, Bush’s own defense minister, Robert Gates, would turn Slovenia’s phrase on its head: “I looked him in the eye and saw what I expected, a cold-blooded killer.” Obama kept Gates at the helm of the Pentagon, so Putin’s true soul was no secret to his Vice President Biden. Only that the president of hope preferred to ignore him and take his dolphin Dimitri Medvedev seriously, whom Putin had turned into a puppet president while waiting as prime minister for his constitutional turn to return to power. By announcing in Munich that it was time to “press the button and restart relations with Russia” Obama wanted to give Medvedev the opportunity to become a real president and a new Gorbachev, but that was not the case, he handed over power to Putin .

Russia attack, live |  The US considers that Russia has committed

Biden came face to face with the Russian president in his Kremlin office for the first time in 2011, when he returned to his gaze and gave it another twist: “I look into your eyes and I don’t think you have a soul,” he later said. Told him. For Biden, he has gone from being a cold and disturbing guy, to a murderer, he said last year, and now “a war criminal,” a description that the Kremlin considers “unforgivable.” According to former White House adviser Fiona Hill, Putin “will not hesitate to press the nuclear button” if the case arises.

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