BRUSSELS – President Joe Biden frequently talks about what he sees as central in executing effective foreign policy: building personal relationships.
But unlike his four most recent White House predecessors, who made an effort to build a measure of rapport with Vladimir Putin, Biden has made clear that the virtue of fusing a personal connection might have its limits when it comes to the Russian leader.
The American president, who is set to meet with Putin face to face on Wednesday in Geneva, is mindful of Putin’s ability to survive even as his country has diminished as a world economic power.
Biden has repeated an anecdote about his last meeting with Putin, 10 years ago when he was vice president and Putin was serving as prime minister. Putin had taken a break from the presidency because the Russian constitution at the time prohibited a third consecutive term, but he was still seen as Russia's most powerful leader.
Biden told biographer Evan Osnos that during that meeting in 2011, Putin showed him his ornate office in Moscow. Biden recalled poking Putin — a former KGB officer — that “it’s amazing what capitalism will do."
Biden said he then turned around and standing inches from Putin said, “Mr. Prime Minister, I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul." Biden said Putin smiled and responded: “We understand one another.”
Putin, for his part, said in an NBC News interview aired Monday that he didn’t remember such an exchange. “I do not remember this particular part of our conversations,” Putin said.
Biden's comment was in part a dig at former President George W. Bush, who faced ridicule after his first meeting with Putin when he claimed that he had “looked the man in the eye” and “was able to get a sense of his soul.” But in replaying his decade-old exchange with Putin, Biden also has attempted to demonstrate he is clear-eyed about the Russian leader in a way his predecessors weren’t.
Biden and Putin are now meeting again, at a moment when the U.S.-Russia relationship seems to get more complicated by the day. Biden has repeatedly taken Putin to task — and levied sanctions against Russian entities and individuals in Putin’s orbit — over allegations of Russian interference in the 2020 election and the hacking of federal agencies in what is known as the SolarWinds breach.
Despite the sanctions, Putin has been unmoved. Cyber attacks in the U.S. originating from Russian-based hackers in recent weeks have also impacted a major oil pipeline and the largest meat supplier in the world. Putin has denied Kremlin involvement.
Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia who was with Biden for the 2011 meeting with Putin, said in an interview that Biden might have a deeper skepticism and perhaps more informed view of Putin than any of his White House predecessors.
“Biden’s knowledge of the region may be better than anybody that’s held the job,” McFaul said. “Biden has spent time in Georgia. He spent a lot of time in Ukraine. I traveled with him to Moldova, and he’s spent a lot of time in the eastern parts of the NATO alliance. He has been in those places and heard firsthand about Russian aggression and Russian threat. ... It has created a unique component of his analysis of Putin that other presidents have not had.”
Indeed, as president, Biden has said he would take a far different tack in his relationship with Putin than former President Donald Trump, who showed unusual deference to Putin, and the three other past U.S. presidents, whose political lives overlapped Putin's time in power.
During his first visit of his presidency to the State Department, in February, Biden told agency employees that the days of “rolling over” for Putin were over — a not-so thinly veiled shot at Trump. Later, in an ABC News interview, Biden answered affirmatively that Putin was “a killer."
Trump’s tendency to genuflect to Putin had many in Washington openly questioning whether the Russians had something embarrassing on the real estate mogul. Both Trump and Putin publicly denied the speculation.
Trump repeatedly tried to scotch the widespread contention — underscored by U.S. intelligence findings — that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election. Asked at their joint news conference at the end of their 2018 summit in Helsinki, Finland, whom he believed — U.S. intelligence or Putin — Trump demurred.
The White House said that Biden would not hold a joint news conference with Putin, but would speak to media on his own after Wednesday's meeting. Administration officials say that Biden doesn't want to elevate Putin. Asked Sunday why years of U.S. sanctions haven't changed Putin's behavior, Biden laughed and responded: “He's Vladimir Putin.""
Barack Obama came into office seeking a reset of the U.S.-Russia relationship, an effort to improve relations with Russian leadership and find areas of common interest.
Before his visit to Moscow early in his first term Obama spoke dismissively of Putin, saying the then-prime minister had “one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new.” But after meeting face-to-face during the trip, Obama pronounced he was “very convinced the prime minister is a man of today and he’s got his eyes firmly on the future.”
That feeling didn't last.
By the time Obama and Putin met on the sidelines of the 2013 Group of Eight summit in Northern Ireland, the reset effort was on life support.
At the time, G-8 leaders were unsuccessfully pressing Putin to join a call for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down. Former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden had been allowed to stay in Russia after releasing highly classified American intelligence.
Obama and Putin's disdain for each other was palpable. During a photo opportunity before the press in Northern Ireland, they sat grim faced and avoided looking at each other.
In 2014, after Russia invaded neighboring Ukraine, any vapor of hope for a reset had evaporated.
George W. Bush tried mightily to charm Putin, hosting him at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, and bringing him to his father’s estate in Kennebunkport, Maine, where the 43rd and 41st presidents took the Russian president fishing.
But Putin ultimately flummoxed Bush and the relationship was badly damaged after Russia's 2008 invasion of its neighbor Georgia after Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili ordered his troops into the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
Bill Clinton was the first U.S. president to deal with Putin, meeting him for the first time in 1999 at the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation gathering months. That was months before Putin would succeed Boris Yeltsin as president and a little over a year before the end of Clinton’s presidency.
In a phone call with Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair in November 2000, Clinton called Putin “a guy with a lot of ambition for the Russians” but also expressed concern that Putin “could get squishy on democracy,” according to a transcript of the call published by the Clinton Presidential Archives.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters last week that Biden has known Putin for a long time and “never held back” on voicing his concerns.
“This is not about friendship. It’s not about trust,” Psaki said. “It’s about what’s in the interest of the United States. And, in our view, that is moving toward a more stable and predictable relationship.”
Biden has managed several complicated relationships with foreign leaders during his nearly 50 years in national politics. He's developed a rapport with China's Xi Jinping — spending days traveling with Xi in the U.S. and China. Biden in recent days has told aides that his relationship with Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan has remained strong despite differences over U.S. support for Kurds in northwest Syria and Biden disparaging Erdogan as an autocrat.
But Putin has left Biden with fundamentally more difficult problems that personal diplomacy can't fix, said Rachel Ellehuus, deputy director of the Europe, Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“With someone like Erdogan, Xi or the North Korean (Kim Jong Un), Biden has had this sense that we have something they want," Ellehuus said. “Biden has long recognized that the only thing Putin really wants is to undermine the U.S., to divide NATO, to divide the EU. Biden knows there’s little common ground to work from with Putin."