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If Putin and Biden actually debated, who would win?  Meduza imagines the presidential faceoff that never came

Source: Meduza
Mikhail Metzel / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Joe Biden’s reluctance to meet Russia’s president in an “open discussion” is deeply “regrettable,” Moscow declared earlier this week. Putin had challenged his American counterpart to something akin to an online debate after Biden called him a “killer” in a television interview. Though the Kremlin insists it had in mind аn informal exchange rather than a public contest, Meduza looks at which president fares better in debates, who might emerge victorious if the two battled each other, and which leader lost more by not debating, in the end.

Do state leaders have debates?

To advance their own agendas, politicians generally participate in two kinds of debates:

  1. Presenting positions and arguments in search of compromises. These debates are less about transparency than solving problems, and they typically take place in diplomatic negotiations behind closed doors or in public parliamentary discussions, which are aired only so voters can know how their elected leaders are representing their interests.
  2. And then there are debates where participants try to win over the public. In these exchanges, politicians try first and foremost to boost themselves at their opponents’ expense, forcing rivals into difficult positions. The U.S. presidential and vice-presidential debates are a classic example of such contests.

Political leaders typically participate in the first type of debates when pursuing various compromises. The public gets a glimpse of these interactions only briefly, usually when the two sides greet each other in front of cameras before discussions begin in private.

What’s actually said behind closed doors is often kept a secret, if not permanently then at least until much later, such as with archives released by U.S. presidential libraries. For example, Bill Clinton’s library only recently shared records revealing some of Vladimir Putin’s earliest interactions with the White House.

Competitive public debates between heads of state and governments, although uncommon, do happen. In early 2020, for example, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan engaged in fierce debates at the Munich Security Conference about the status of the contested Nagorno-Karabakh territory. The exchange ended in a stalemate (which is little surprise, given that neither side was particularly interested in a compromise), and the issue was ultimately settled through warfare, several months later.

Did Putin want to follow in Aliyev’s footsteps and dunk on his global rival? Why then the call for a debate at all?

In January 2021, immediately following Biden’s inauguration, at the 11th hour, with little public discussion, Russia and the United States renewed the New START Treaty, successfully negotiating in what could be the last area of agreement between Moscow and Washington. Going forward, any similar deals outside arms control are virtually unthinkable without radical, highly unlikely diplomatic breakthroughs.

If Putin actually hoped to kickstart this process by repairing his relationship with the White House, he probably would have proposed meeting Biden in person. In 1985, it was face-to-face conversations between Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan that marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Similarly, the tête-à-tête between Dmitry Medvedev and Barrack Obama ushered in the “Reset” in U.S.-Russian relations in 2009. Establishing trust between leaders is key in these negotiations.

When Putin invited Biden to a live online debate, he clearly understood that the format was in no way conducive to generating mutual trust or developing his “chemistry” with the U.S. president. Putin obviously intended a competitive debate, likely anticipating that Biden would decline the offer. When Joe Biden said he agrees that Russia’s president is a “killer,” he probably didn’t intend to discuss it again in front of millions of people around the world.

Political analyst Alexander Baunov argues that Biden broke with diplomatic rhetoric by namecalling Putin in order to demonstrate his lack of interest in engaging Russia’s president. By calling for a debate, Putin was actually appealing to his domestic audience in Russia, says Baunov.

It’s anybody’s guess if there was something more than political strategy behind Putin’s proposal. Since the annexation of Crimea, Putin has repeatedly endorsed ambitious initiatives that would radically change international politics (if implemented) and simultaneously restore Russia’s partnership with the West (this time, on Moscow’s own terms). In 2015, for example, Putin advocated the creation of a broad coalition for joint action against Islamists in Syria, reminiscent of the alliance against Hitler. Just last year, he called for a summit meeting of U.N. Security Council members. On both occasions, he timed these proposals to coincide with the anniversary of the USSR’s victory over the Nazis, modeling his vision on mid-century diplomacy.

Americans and Europeans, however, have shown little interest in Putin’s grand vision for the future. 

Who’s better in a debate – Biden or Putin?

Joe Biden has been a politician for far longer than Vladimir Putin. In 1973, when Biden first became a U.S. senator, Putin was still a student in the Leningrad University’s Law Department. Biden ran for vice president in two U.S. presidential elections. Ahead of last year’s election, he participated in fierce debates with opponents for the Democratic Party’s nomination and then with the incumbent president, Donald Trump.

It’s true that no one considers Biden to be a master of public debate. He has a reputation as a “gaffe machine” in public speaking, and his “wins” on the debate stage have rarely been decisive. Ahead of the 2008 presidential election, he won a vice-presidential debate against Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. His primary success in that exchange, according to audience members, was simply that he avoided any disastrous blunders. His opponent, moreover, was viewed largely as an inexperienced outsider and a poor choice for runningmate. Despite losing the debate to Biden, however, Palin’s performance nevertheless helped improve her voter approval ratings.

In 2012, it was up to Vice President Biden to save Barrack Obama who lost his first presidential debate with Republican Mitt Romney. Biden radically changed his style against Republican VP candidate Paul Ryan, becoming more aggressive and mimicking, mocking, and interrupting his opponent. Ryan responded with stock phrases and seemed to lose the exchange, but many voters nevertheless felt that Biden went too far.

Last year, in two debates with Donald Trump, Biden found himself in Paul Ryan’s shoes, facing off against an incumbent leader. Those two exchanges are remembered for the dozens of times Trump interrupted his opponent (famously prompting Biden to bark back, “Will you shut up, man?”) and for Trump’s struggles to defend his administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic (amplified by his own bout with COVID-19, mid-campaign). By most accounts, Biden managed to win the debates without much exertion (other than the patience it took to share a stage with Mr. Trump).

For 20 years, Vladimir Putin has consistently refused to debate, always avoiding public disputes with equally matched opponents. To reach out directly to the public, he’s instead relied on annual televised “Direct Line” broadcasts and major press conferences, where he spends hours at a time reciting statistics and showcasing his involvement in various state programs. The Kremlin also shares the minutes from his official meetings. Vladimir Putin has no direct experience in public debates with peers or rivals.

But Putin has engaged in public disputes:

  • In February 2003, at a meeting between Putin and several big business leaders, oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky accused a state corporation of corruption and accused the Kremlin of expanding the state’s market share, which Khodorkovsky argued was hindering the country’s development. Putin fired back that Yukos was evading taxes and bribing state officials. Within a year, Khodorkovsky was behind bars.
  • At a meeting with several cultural figures in 2010, then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin shared a tense moment with the musician Yuri Shevchuk, who demanded a discussion about ongoing opposition protests. Putin pretended not to recognize the famous rock star and accused Shevchuk of deliberately “provocative” behavior. The two then argued about the merits of breaking up the protests. “You want to stage [the march] right where people want to drive out to their dachas on Friday afternoon, for example. Or where they will be coming home from the dacha on Sunday. [They'll be so mad that] you’ll never hear the end of it,” Putin said, adding however that the authorities should not “create conditions that impede free speech.”
  • In 2015, at the start of a drawn-out economic crisis, Putin argued on live TV about economic strategy with former Finance Minister Alexey Kudrin, who had resigned years earlier from Dmitry Medvedev’s administration over a disagreement on increases in budget spending for the army and police. Kudrin claimed that the “old model for economic development has become defunct, yet a new model is not being considered.” In response, Putin said Kudrin had monetized welfare benefits thereby increasing budget expenses. Putin acknowleged that the population’s income rose faster than labor productivity in the years when oil prices were up, which became the cause of the 2014 currency devaluation, but the president reminded his audience that Kudrin himself had participated in drafting the country’s development program up until 2020, implying that Kudrin was also to blame for budget problems. Kudrin responded meekly that his program wasn’t being implemented.
  • In his 2017 press conference, Putin discussed with presidential candidate Kseniya Sobchak whether the authorities feared opposition leader Alexey Navalny. Sobchak challenged Putin directly, albeit outside a formal debate: “People understand that, in Russia to be part of the opposition, means that either you’ll be killed or imprisoned, or something similar will happen to you. Why does this happen? Are the authorities actually scared of honest competition?” Putin countered with his own attack, avoiding Navalny’s name, as always: “The opposition should put forth a clear, comprehensive platform with positive initiatives. What solutions to today’s problems are you proposing? In regard to the person to whom you referred, do you want dozens of such Saakashvilis to be running about our city squares? He’s a Saakashvili, only a Russian version. I am convinced that the overwhelming majority of Russian citizens do not want that.”

In all these debate scenarios, Putin employed a similar tactic. He exposed his opponents’ inferior status that prevented them from competing with him on his level, and then counterattacked, recalling these individuals’ (and their peers’) mistakes and faults. If Biden ever confronted him about Russia’s human rights violations, political repressions, and targeted killings, Putin would likely accuse the United States of pursuing global hegemony and trying to export liberalism.

If the debate were to happen, who would win?

Judging by the history of American presidential debates, a lot would depend on how each competitor positioned himself. Televised election debates have been held in the U.S. regularly since 1976. Public opinion, as a rule, favors challengers over incumbent presidents. Both candidates, it follows, would do well to position themselves as an opposition figure challenging the system. This would be somewhat easier for Putin, even though he has ruled his country for more than 20 years, due to Biden’s many decades in politics. In recent years, moreover, Russian propaganda has focused intensely on criticizing the United States.

Putin would also be able to use any public exchange with Biden to bolster his position at his opponent’s expese, regardless of the debate’s outcome. The discussion itself would be proof that the United States sees Russia as its equal.

Inevitably, the debate would qualify as a historic event but it would also be limited in its impact. The winners of U.S. presidential debates, for instance, don’t always win elections. Additionally, the Kremlin’s proposed forum would likely have resembled last year’s confrontation between Aliyev and Pashinyan. It’s hard to imagine either leader saying something unexpected in this scenario; the differences and disagreements between Moscow and Washington remain too great to be settled in a public discussion.

Does Biden’s refusal to debate amount to a loss?

Not necessarily. Russian state-sponsored propaganda is certainly portraying Putin’s challenge and Biden’s refusal as proof of Russia’s strength and American weakness. Then again, however, this propaganda narrative has limited impact.

First, such an argument could easily be used against Putin himself, who has refused to debate his political opponents at home in Russia. Second, Putin’s challenge generated a thoroughly underwhelming reaction in the West. While the Russian president’s sympathizers might view this reaction as further evidence of Putin’s righteousness in the fight against the global establishment, most people apparently just don’t care.

Finally, the history of Russian domestic politics indicates that refusing a debate carries no risks whatsoever. In a culture where turning down such a challenge is nothing extraordinary, it’s likely to be forgotten quickly.

Text by Dmitry Kuznets with additional reporting by Dmitry Kartsev

Translation by Peter Bertero and Kevin Rothrock

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