Getting along with killers Historian Sergey Radchenko reviews the bad blood and diplomatic restraint of U.S.-Russian relations over the decades
In an interview published on March 17, U.S. President Joe Biden said he considers Vladimir Putin to be a “killer,” prompting the Russian president to respond a day later with a schoolyard retort that translates loosely to the phrase: “Look who’s talking!” In what sounded more like a threat than a salutation, Putin also wished his American counterpart good health. Meduza asked historian Sergey Radchenko, a professor of international relations at Cardiff University, how this week’s “killer” tension compares to U.S.-Russian diplomacy in years past.
Please note: The remarks below were given in Russian. What follows is a translation.
Biden calling Putin a killer actually makes for an interesting situation. On the one hand, Putin might be offended, but it’s also better from Putin’s perspective than when Obama called him “a bored kid in the back of the classroom.”
Back then, from Obama’s point of view, Russia was an absolutely irrelevant country. Obama said that Russia is a declining power. They talk about this now, as well, but at the same time, in Great Britain and in the United States, they call Russia a huge threat. And the way Russia is portrayed there legitimizes Putin as a leader — it actually helps him. He may have failed to become America’s friend like he wanted in the early 2000s, but he managed to become its archenemy.
While Putin may act like he’s offended, he appears before the world as the leader of a great power worth Biden’s scorn. If they speak so badly about Putin, it means he represents some measure of greatness. The legitimization of the Russian regime and the fact that America recognizes Russia are related concepts.
In the context of American politics, there’s nothing particularly strange about Biden calling Putin a “killer.” The U.S. has its own rules and its own version of Russia that’s somewhat divorced from the Russia that actually exists. It’s a slightly invented Russia, and American politicians have to play along with these sentiments if they want to avoid political problems and antagonizing public opinion.
For example, journalist Bill O'Reilly once told Donald Trump that Putin “is a killer” and Trump responded: “There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers. Well, you think our country is so innocent?”
That’s why Biden responded the way he did. He was asked a direct question and perhaps he couldn’t evade it and reacted wrongly.
There may be another factor here. Relations between Russia and America right now are at such a low that Biden doesn’t really lose much if they deteriorate even further by offending someone. What’s paramount for him is how the American public and political elite react to his words. American politicians are always speaking to their domestic audience, and sometimes that means calling foreign leaders names. What happened this week is an escalation, of course, but it’s not unprecedented. First and foremost, Biden is doing this for his own domestic audience. Domestic politics are always front and center for him. That’s the foundation of American politics.
If you look at the history of Russian-Soviet-American relations as a whole, the Soviet leaders had a lot more blood on their hands than Putin does now.
For example, Leonid Brezhnev would meet with American leaders. He had a good relationship with Richard Nixon. Things were a little worse with Jimmy Carter, who accused the USSR of human rights violations. He had a bad relationship with Ronald Reagan, but Reagan always stopped himself from calling the Soviet leader names — even though Brezhnev had the invasion of Afghanistan and the intervention in Czechoslovakia on his hands. As far as killers go, Putin doesn’t even hold a candle to him.
The relationship between Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy was pretty tense, too. There was the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, but they still tried to remain respectful to one another and spoke to each other respectfully.
Even Joseph Stalin had a mostly satisfactory relationship personally with Harry Truman and Franklin Roosevelt, despite the fact that Stalin of all people was a real killer — a mass murderer responsible for hundreds of thousands of victims in the USSR.
At the same time, American leaders have shared their personal feelings before. In private conversations, when discussing foreign leaders away from the press and the public, they call them every word in the book. The awful things Nixon said about Indira Gandhi behind closed doors with Henry Kissinger make your skin crawl. In public, though, they didn’t do that.
There’s a lot more grandstanding and playing to the audience now than there was before. And that’s true on both sides. After all, we saw [this week] how quickly a reaction came from Russia: Putin has already spoken and said that grandpa needs a nap and should mind his health.
I don’t see anything positive in this. Though you can view him in any number of ways, Putin represents a nuclear-armed state and pursues his own interests. Biden, too. And it’s important to observe diplomatic protocol, even when the relationship cools or skids. You’ve got to be able to talk to each other. If this doesn’t happen, you’ll slip into the position where the Chinese found themselves during the Cultural Revolution, when they used to rail at Soviet leaders. And for what? Did it do any good? It was stupid, impolite, and absolutely pointless. I see no need to revive the traditions of China’s Cultural Revolution in [U.S.-Russian] relations.
The relationship between Russia and the United States is very bad right now, but it’s been worse. I don’t think we should seek to worsen things further and I’m against rejoicing just because we haven’t yet hit rock bottom. When the relationship breaks down, direct contacts are lost. People stop understanding what the other side wants and what they’re doing at all. Meanwhile, each country has nuclear weapons. This situation can lead to unpleasant consequences and dangerous results.
For historians, the tensest moments of Soviet-American confrontation took place in 1962 (during the Cuban Missile Crisis) and in the 1980s, when the world teetered on the brink of nuclear catastrophe. If you look at the early 1980s, there were communications between the United States and the Soviet Union, but there was no special interaction between the two countries. The situation was so strained that Soviet leaders thought the Americans might launch a preemptive nuclear strike.
Soviet and American leaders seriously considered the ethics of the nuclear option. Today, they don’t even think about it, though there’s some danger here, as well. You might play with fire and end up in a place where you’re thinking about missiles again.
Russia and the U.S. have more capable nuclear weapons now than during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In this sense, the world has become even more dangerous, which underscores the need for dialogue and building more or less equal [bilateral] relations, instead of our heads of state abusing each other like kids on a playground.
Nevertheless, I don’t expect the rhetorical escalation to become a military one. For example, Trump called Kim Jong-un a “rocketman,” who unloaded insults at the U.S. in response, but both sides understand that they each have nuclear weapons, that they’re on the brink of a confrontation, and that they need to look for a way out — an escape — to improve the relationship.
It’s the same thing now. The Russian authorities have already recalled their ambassador [in the U.S. for consultations in Moscow]. There will be talks about where relations with the United States are headed. They’re currently “frozen.” To get out of this situation, you have to start restoring a basic level of trust and building some confidence.
Building confidence isn’t easy. But, as history shows, U.S.-Russian relations can deteriorate sharply and improve just as quickly. For example, the height of the Soviet-American confrontation was in 1983, when it seemed nuclear war might be imminent. Two years pass and we see Gorbachev and Reagan meeting in Geneva and then in Reykjavik, and the relationship changes fundamentally. They go from enemies to friends.
The situation can shift very quickly, though we’re at a stage now when rapid changes are unlikely due to the personalities of the heads of state. On the other hand, these people will leave office one day and hopefully everything will change for the better.
Maybe it’s because of online social networks, but communication culture has been declining in recent years not just between national leaders but between people in general. Mainly, this is the “Twitter effect.” Even people in leadership positions sometimes, without thinking, share everything on social media that comes into their heads. Previously, assistants would check everything a dozen times, they’d clear the wording, and you might go back to the statement and tweak the tone — there was time to do all that. Now there’s no time. We live in such fast times that everything is published instantly. So language is changing, too. As a result, diplomatic language has lost the civility that once defined it.
This also affects international relations. People play to the audience, and audiences want to be entertained. Calling someone names is easier to sell to the general public than an effusive, respectful speech.
There’s been a general degradation as a result of these social and cultural changes, which are equally relevant for Russia, the United States, and places like China. But America didn’t start this. America may have contributed to this trend, but Russian diplomacy has spoken its own incomprehensible language for years already. This much is obvious to anyone who follows the speeches of [Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman] Ms. Maria Zakharova. For several years now, she’s been responsible for gems that make Biden’s remarks seem respectful by comparison.
Translation by Kevin Rothrock