By calling Vladimir Putin a “killer,” the American president has emphasized above all that the United States sees Russia as a secondary power.
First, there is that word that reverberates like the shot of a Makarov pistol: “killer.” When the journalist who asked him about Vladimir Putin said it, Joe Biden’s response was unequivocal. Yes, in his eyes, the leader of the Kremlin is indeed a killer.
As far as the form is concerned, the American president’s remarks strangely recall those of his predecessor. Certainly, Donald Trump never would have said such a thing about his Russian counterpart. But he did not, for example, hesitate to call Kim Jong Un a “little rocket man” when threats and insults, instead of missiles, were flying back and forth between Pyongyang and Washington.
Formwise, we have a type of international relations where, even in Trump’s absence, leaders showing their muscles has become the norm rather than the exception. Is such behavior really desirable in a man who claims to incarnate a democracy that is sure of itself and its values? In a head of state who tries to project the image of rediscovered tranquility? We are allowed to doubt it.
Then there is also the content of the remarks. On this front, Biden is his predecessor’s polar opposite. Toward Moscow, he is taking the same approach as Barack Obama, who, after a reset attempt sketched out in Geneva, very quickly acknowledged irreconcilable differences.
China: The One Strategic Rival
Nevertheless, what is most offensive for the Kremlin is not all that tied to the use of a particular way of addressing the Russian president, nor is it tied to the head-on opposition that Biden is promising him. The insult, the real one, goes back to what all of this says about how people in Washington see Russia. While the occupant of the White House calls Vladimir Putin a “killer,” all he says of Xi Jinping is that “he doesn’t have a democratic bone in his body.” This difference in register — a personal attack versus a political observation — is a reminder that the United States only sees one strategic rival: China.
Obama also denied Russia the status of respected equal. In 2014, not long after the annexation of Crimea, he deplored the machinations of a “regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors — not out of strength but out of weakness.” Relegating Russia to a secondary status would constitute, in the eyes of many of them, the ultimate insult. And that is what Biden has just reminded them of, in his own way.