WASHINGTON — As President Biden tells the story, he was blunt with Vladimir V. Putin throughout a gathering in Moscow greater than a decade in the past. “I’m trying into your eyes, and I don’t assume you will have a soul,” Mr. Biden recalled telling the Okay.G.B. veteran. Mr. Putin smiled. “We perceive each other,” he mentioned.
Now, as the USA seeks to rally the world to counter Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin, the Russian president, are testing their understandings of each other as by no means earlier than, making an attempt to anticipate and outmaneuver one another with the destiny of thousands and thousands of individuals within the steadiness.
Not since John F. Kennedy and Nikita S. Khrushchev squared off over Berlin and Cuba have an American president and Russian chief gone eyeball to eyeball in fairly such a dramatic vogue. Whereas the 2 nuclear states are usually not poised for battle instantly with one another, as they have been six many years in the past, the showdown between Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin nonetheless holds huge penalties for the world order that could be felt for years to come back.
Mr. Biden has denounced Mr. Putin as “the aggressor” for invading Ukraine and vowed to make him “a pariah on the worldwide stage.” To that finish, Mr. Biden selected Friday to impose sanctions on Mr. Putin himself, focusing on him personally in a method that by no means occurred even in the course of the Chilly Warfare. Mr. Putin, for his half, is testing Mr. Biden’s mettle at a time when the Russians have concluded that the USA is split and distracted at residence, leaving little room for consensus.
“They’re coming from two totally different planets and it’s tough to see the place that intersects,” mentioned Frank Lowenstein, who was on the workers of the Senate International Relations Committee when Mr. Biden was its chairman. Mr. Biden believes within the rules-based system that Mr. Putin is making an attempt to tear down. “He virtually appears to personify the outdated order of issues,” Mr. Lowenstein mentioned of the president, “whereas Putin in some methods personifies the brand new lack of order.”
Over the previous few weeks, Mr. Biden has spent countless hours with advisers and intelligence officers making an attempt to determine what’s in Mr. Putin’s head and learn how to affect his calculations — with out success up to now.
The Russian chief has lengthy harbored bitterness about Ukraine and denied that it was genuinely an impartial state, however briefers instructed Mr. Biden that Mr. Putin appeared to develop extra excessive in his considering throughout his isolation during the last two years amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Greater than most world leaders, Mr. Putin has been a digital recluse, holding distant even from his personal circle, as dramatized by video pictures in latest days of him sitting far throughout a room from different Russian officers or visiting overseas leaders. After greater than twenty years in energy and nearing his seventieth birthday, Mr. Putin has appeared extra targeted currently on his legacy, Mr. Biden’s group has instructed the president.
American officers are debating whether or not Mr. Putin has develop into unbalanced. “I want I might share extra, however for now I can say it’s fairly apparent to many who one thing is off with #Putin,” Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who’s the highest Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee and has entry to a number of the similar intelligence because the president, wrote on Twitter on Friday evening.
As Russian troops gathered close to the Ukrainian border, Mr. Biden sought to interact Mr. Putin by getting on the phone with him and sending each envoy he might to fulfill with any Russian official who would discuss, however his name went nowhere and so did the opposite discussions.
The problem is that this: If Mr. Putin, within the later levels of his reign, is making an attempt to rewrite historical past by reversing what he sees because the injustice of the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union and rebuilding the outdated empire, then conventional instruments of deterrence and diplomacy will not be sufficient to get him to desert such a messianic mission.
So Mr. Biden in latest weeks has emphasised solidarity with Europe to revive the unity of the trans-Atlantic alliance that frayed underneath President Donald J. Trump, who usually criticized America’s pals greater than he did Mr. Putin. That diplomatic spadework led either side of the Atlantic to resolve on Friday to focus on Mr. Putin himself by going after his cash held overseas.
Mr. Biden is the fifth American president to cope with Mr. Putin, however the first to enter workplace with a historical past of involvement in setting coverage towards Russia from his time as a senator and vp. In contrast to the earlier 4 presidents, who every to totally different levels hoped to forge higher ties with Moscow, Mr. Biden by no means harbored illusions about making pals with Mr. Putin’s Russia, advisers mentioned.
However he did aspire to determine a “steady, predictable relationship” with a tend-the-garden technique of paying simply sufficient consideration to Mr. Putin to make him really feel revered with out losing time on grand diplomacy that will by no means work, an method that will permit Mr. Biden to concentrate on China.
Within the face of a earlier Russian troop buildup close to Ukraine final spring, Mr. Biden agreed to a summit assembly with Mr. Putin in Geneva over the objection of some advisers who anxious it was rewarding the Kremlin chief, who because it turned out was extra intent on an unstable and unpredictable relationship.
If Mr. Biden underestimated his counterpart, Mr. Putin could have executed the identical. Maybe influenced by the chaotic American troop withdrawal from Afghanistan final summer season, Mr. Putin knew that the USA had no urge for food to commit forces to Ukraine and should have calculated that Mr. Biden wouldn’t in any other case strongly resist Russian aggression, in line with American and Russian analysts.
However whereas some critics consider he needs to be even harder, Mr. Biden was unrelenting in calling out Mr. Putin’s plans to invade Ukraine in latest weeks and has rallied European allies right into a roughly widespread entrance.
“Like Kennedy and Khrushchev, they’re such polar opposites in lots of method however in addition they share an understanding of the Chilly Warfare,” mentioned Nina Khrushcheva, the great-granddaughter of the Soviet chief, who now teaches on the New Faculty in New York. “And I believe they do perceive one another.”
Nonetheless, she added that they each could have miscalculated in considering that their familiarity would result in concessions when neither was truly ready to ship what the opposite actually needed. Mr. Biden needed Mr. Putin to mainly keep in his field and Mr. Putin needed to broaden the dimensions of his field.
They’re each youngsters of the Chilly Warfare, raised, educated and married in an period when the specter of a planet-ending battle between the USA and the Soviet Union hovered over every little thing. But they emerged from that twilight wrestle with radically totally different views of the way it ended, one celebrating it as a victory for freedom and democracy, the opposite mourning it as a catastrophe for his nation and other people.
They each come from modest upbringings and are merchandise of their disparate methods, however they rose to energy alongside distinct paths. Mr. Biden, 79, is a backslapping politician who depends on the pressure of his upbeat persona to drive diplomacy whereas Mr. Putin, 69, is a dour former intelligence agent who nurses resentments and conspiracy theories.
Mr. Putin by no means talks about his household, whereas Mr. Biden can hardly cease speaking about his. Mr. Putin spent no time in elective politics earlier than being plucked out of obscurity to succeed Boris N. Yeltsin, whereas Mr. Biden spent a lifetime working for workplace. They every have a penchant for macho exhibitionism, Mr. Putin posing for photos shirtless or with tigers and Mr. Biden displaying off his muscle vehicles and boasting that he wish to beat up Mr. Trump.
“Biden’s a retail politician and Putin is from the covert safety providers who runs with a mafia-like inside circle,” mentioned Heather A. Conley, the president of the German Marshall Fund of the USA, a gaggle that promotes trans-Atlantic relations. “Putin’s imaginative and prescient is of a grievance-filled historical past that he’s searching for to overturn, and President Biden’s historical past is of an American victory on the finish of the Chilly Warfare and the optimistic energy of alliances and freedom and democracy.”
For a time, American presidents thought they might make widespread trigger with Mr. Putin. After he took over as prime minister in 1999 and president in 2000, Mr. Putin appeared decided to deliver Russia into the West, aligning himself with President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, assaults and even welcoming American troops into former Soviet territory. In 2002, he mentioned that the Baltic republics had each proper to hitch NATO in the event that they needed to.
Perceive Russia’s Assault on Ukraine
However after the Rose Revolution within the former Soviet republic of Georgia in 2003 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 dropped at energy pro-Western governments, Mr. Putin suspected the uprisings have been American-sponsored costume rehearsals for a plot to take him out. Whereas objecting to the Iraq battle, he nonetheless cared sufficient about worldwide approval to host the Group of 8 powers at a specifically rebuilt palace outdoors St. Petersburg in 2006. However by the following yr, he broke with the West in a blistering speech on the Munich Safety Convention blasting the American-led order.
Mr. Putin’s battle with Georgia in 2008 and annexation of Crimea and sponsorship of separatist uprisings in Ukraine in 2014 signaled a revanchist technique of undoing the Soviet collapse, which he termed the “biggest geopolitical disaster” of the twentieth century. And after he concluded that avenue protests in opposition to him in 2011 have been someway the work of Hillary Clinton, he licensed a clandestine operation to assist defeat her in 2016 and elect Mr. Trump.
Mr. Biden has an extended historical past with Russian officers as nicely. In 1979, as a senator, he met with the Soviet chief Leonid Brezhnev, and when he turned President Barack Obama’s vp, Mr. Biden was the one who steered the 2 sides “press the reset button.” However after tensions rose, he was assigned to guide help for Ukraine, placing him at odds with Mr. Putin.
When he visited Moscow in 2011, Mr. Biden held what he described as a contentious assembly with Mr. Putin, who on the time held the place of prime minister once more however was nonetheless the nation’s paramount chief.
“Putin was ice-cold calm all through, however argumentative from begin to end,” Mr. Biden recalled in a memoir. He wrote that he instructed Mr. Putin about his efforts to maintain Georgia’s hotheaded chief, Mikheil Saakashvili, from antagonizing Moscow.
“I converse to Saakashvili usually on the telephone and I urge him to not take provocative actions, simply as I urge you to revive Georgia’s sovereignty,” Mr. Biden mentioned.
“Oh,” replied Mr. Putin, the outdated spy, “we all know precisely what you say to Mr. Saakashvili on the telephone.”
Whether or not Mr. Biden truly instructed the Russian chief that he had no soul at this assembly or embellished the story as some suspect, the purpose was that the vp was making an attempt to tell apart himself from Mr. Bush’s well-known remark that he “was in a position to get a way of his soul” upon first assembly Mr. Putin.
John R. Beyrle, who was the USA ambassador on the time and sat in on Mr. Biden’s assembly with the Russian chief, recalled that Mr. Putin delighted in throwing the Individuals off guard with a shock proposal to loosen visa guidelines between the 2 international locations, however in any other case it was “only a plain vanilla assembly.”
“I don’t even bear in mind the chemistry or the physique language being horrible,” he mentioned. However Mr. Putin was not oozing in heat, he mentioned: “Discuss expressionless. Very managed man.” It was a distinction with Mr. Biden. “Clearly, they’re very totally different individuals,” Mr. Beyrle mentioned.
A decade later, the 2 males who thought they understood one another discover themselves on reverse sides of a collision that’s shaking the world.