During his first interview with an American news organization in three years, Russian President Vladimir Putin told NBC News on Monday he views President Joe Biden as a political “career man” prone to hollow “macho” posturing, such as an interview last year in which Biden referred to Putin as a “killer.”
Biden backed down from those remarks on Monday as he prepared for his scheduled meeting with Putin on Wednesday.
When NBC interviewer Keir Simmons asked Putin to contrast dealing with Biden versus his predecessor, Donald Trump, Putin made it clear he sees Biden as much easier to handle because he is a predictable lifetime professional politician, not a renegade outsider from beyond the “U.S. establishment” like Trump:
Well even now, I believe that former US President Mr. Trump is an extraordinary individual, a talented individual, otherwise he would not have become US President. He is a colorful individual. You may like him or not. And, but he didn’t come from the U.S. establishment.
He had not been part of big time politics before, and some like it some don’t like it but that is a fact. President Biden, of course, is radically different from Trump because President Biden is a career man. He has spent virtually his entire adulthood in politics.
That’s a different kind of person, and it is my great hope that yes, there are some advantages, some disadvantages, but there will not be any knee-jerk reactions on behalf of the sitting US president that we will be able to comply with certain rules of engagement, certain rules of communications and will be able to find points of contact and common points.
Simmons tried to create a little drama by reminding the Russian leader that Biden claims to have called him soulless to his face ten years ago. Putin said he did not recall Biden saying any such thing to him.
“I do not remember any inappropriate elements of behavior on the part of my counterparts. I don’t think that anything like that has happened. Perhaps he did say something, but I do not remember,” Putin said.
Putin denied every allegation of misbehavior directed at his government, from directing or indulging cyberattacks against the United States to his brutal repression of domestic political opponents like imprisoned and outlawed dissident Alexei Navalny, whose name Putin refuses to speak.
Putin left Simmons sputtering in stunned outrage when he claimed he has no fear of political opponents and takes no actions to repress them, at one point grumbling that if Simmons truly believed in free speech, he would pipe down and let Putin finish answering his questions.
“If you muster patience and let me finish saying what I mean to say, everything will be clear to you. But you are not liking my answer. You don’t want my answer to be heard by your audience. That is the problem. You are shutting me down. Is that a free expression?” Putin goaded the flustered American reporter.
Simmons riposted by noting that Putin responds to every criticism of Russia by carping about something in America, but predicted he would be unable to deflect the charge from Biden and other American politicians that Putin is a stone-cold “killer” who uses murder to advance his agenda and remain in power.
“The late John McCain, in Congress, called you a killer. When President Trump was asked — was told that you are a killer, he didn’t deny it. When President Biden was asked whether he believes you are a killer, he said, ‘I do.’ Mr. President, are you a killer?” Simmons asked.
Putin blew the criticism off as theatrics from Americans who watch too many movies:
Over my tenure, I’ve gotten used to attacks from all kinds of angles, and from all kinds of areas, under all kinds of pretexts and reasons, and of different caliber and fierceness. And none of it surprises me. People with whom I work and with whom we argue, we are not bride and groom. We don’t swear everlasting love and friendship.
We are partners. And in some areas, we are rivals or competitors. As far as harsh rhetoric, I think this is an expression of overall U.S. culture. Of course in Hollywood, because we mentioned Hollywood at the beginning of our conversation, there are some deep things in Hollywood — macho — which can be treated as cinematographic art but more often than not it’s macho behavior that is part of U.S. political culture, where it’s considered normal.
When Simmons ran down a list of people inconvenient to Putin who have, in fact, been killed, some of them leaving behind radioactive corpses, Putin snidely responded: “Look, you know, I don’t want to come across as being rude, but this looks like some kind of indigestion, except that it’s verbal indigestion.”
Biden clumsily walked back his characterization of Putin as a “killer” on Monday, instead describing him as a “bright,” “tough,” and “worthy adversary.” Biden followed this up by adding that “it would be a tragedy” and “hurt his relationships with the rest of the world, in my view, and with me” if Putin kills Navalny.
In between Putin’s excuses, deflections, and insult comedy, his NBC interview wove a consistent thread that is not dissimilar to the line China has been pushing since the end of the Trump administration: America no longer has the power, wealth, or influence to impose its notions of human rights and political freedom on the world’s autocratic dictatorships, and the U.S. is destabilizing the developing world by trying.
Putin was especially keen on using the recent history of the Middle East to make this point, accusing the U.S. of causing instability and conflict by intervening in Libya in 2011 (under the Obama administration, when Biden served as vice president) and by resisting Russia’s efforts to prop up Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. He also hectored Trump and Biden for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan after twenty years, asking “What is this predictability and the stability again?”