Alexander Zemlyanichenko / AP
The excitement continued for a week after President Biden broke the hornet’s nest, telling a crowd of Poles that Russian President Vladimir Putin should leave.
“For God’s sake, this man can’t stay in power,” Biden said.
Those words were still hanging in the air as the White House began to give explanations and European allies began to seek to distance themselves.
This is not politics, White House aides said. Regime change in Moscow is not a goal in Ukraine, they said, and it is not a coherent NATO position. And it really wasn’t.
But this is familiar territory for Biden. Sometimes he just says what he thinks. And he’s not the first US president to do so – or pay the price. If we talk about relations with Russia, we can say that the problematic presidential statements have been a pattern for decades.
Talks about Russia were a major distraction during Donald Trump’s presidency. Prior to that, it was sometimes inconvenient for Barack Obama to communicate with Putin or his deputy Dmitry Medvedev.
Even George W. Bush, for all his concern about other world conflicts, has managed to unleash a dispute with Russia. In 2001, he said he looked Putin in the eye and considered him “very direct and trustworthy”, adding: “I was able to feel his soul.”
Ten years later, Biden will say he doesn’t even think about Putin had soul – and take responsibility for this statement.
Whether these words were instantaneous explosions, planned provocations, or ill-considered retreats, they often shook relations with Russia or provoked an angry reaction in the United States. Sometimes they did both.
It was a model of a long night of the Cold War that lasted four decades after World War II. And since then it has been a model.
The powerful union has long gone awry
The United States and Russia were allies in World War II, at least because the two countries had a common enemy in Nazi Germany. When Hitler invaded Russia in 1941, the United States sent food and weapons to help the Russians resist.
Later that year, after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States went to war against all Axis powers. Americans were then encouraged to think of the Russians as brave and steadfast partners in the world struggle against fascism.
Hollywood has been recruited to help with this change of attitude. One film in particular Mission to Moscow, featured Ambassador Franklin Roosevelt to Russia Joseph E. Davis as a strong visionary. It also sympathetically depicts Soviet leaders. Even the totalitarian dictator Joseph Stalin appeared on the screen as “Uncle Joe” smoking a pipe – full of concern for his countrymen. (In 1943, the film had a lot to swallow, and now it rarely appears without suffocation and laughter.)
When the war ended, Stalin and the Soviets continued to occupy or dominate the countries of Eastern and Central Europe that they had captured from the Nazis. The United States and its allies in Western Europe have tacitly embraced this reality, which will remain a painful topic for every president since Harry Truman.
Back in 1976, discussing his Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter, President Gerald Ford told national television that he did not think Poles felt the dominance of the Soviets, who had occupied the country for 30 years.
Ford knew what he meant by that remark, but many of the audience and the media didn’t know it. Identified as a mistake, the statement dominated much of the coverage of the debate. Some believed this slowed Ford’s return to a crucial moment and contributed to his small loss to Carter.
From the “evil empire” to the ray of hope
Towards the end of the Cold War, President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” causing reproach from the Kremlin and many in the United States.
Some critics have found it useless to express the rivalry of superpowers in such morally simplistic terms. Others found the language cheerful and inspiring.
But at the moment this was not the way to a more positive relationship.
Then there was that reluctant moment in 1984 when Reagan recorded one of his Saturday radio appearances. Knowing that the broadcast was not live, the president joked that he had just signed a law on “forever outside the law of the Soviet Union.” “We start bombing in five minutes,” he said. Although the joke was not broadcast live, it was recorded and then leaked and heard widely.
Soviet officials protested at the time, but there were few serious consequences. Perhaps this was because they had already been engulfed in internal strife, which in fact would soon have brought an end to the Soviet era.
Back in the US, the idea of Reagan’s joke did not satisfy many. Some saw this as a sign of Reagan’s mental decline. But that did not slow Reagan’s re-election: he had 49 states that fall. And for several years, the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, carried out far-reaching reforms in his native country and reconsidered its role in the world. He even negotiated a nuclear disarmament treaty with Reagan.
By the end of his second term, Reagan could stand near the final symbol of the Cold War in Berlin and say, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” And shortly thereafter, while George W. Bush was in office, the citizens of Berlin finally tore down that wall.
Enemy, rival or something else?
After the end of the Cold War, relations with Russia entered a much more ambiguous phase. Was post-Soviet Russia an enemy or just an adversary? Was his new government a democracy, or did it become an autocracy under another name?
And should the United States maintain an irreconcilable hostility to a country that is no longer committed to its communist ideology – could there be another way to coexist with the world’s second-largest nuclear arsenal?
Bill Clinton, who was lucky during his tenure, benefited from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting “peace dividend” of reducing global tensions and the burden of the arms race.
However, Clinton had some awkward moments with Boris Yeltsin, the only Russian leader elected in a truly free multi-party election. Yeltsin was a colorful but volatile figure who emerged from the sudden boom in political and media freedom that Russia experienced in the early 1990s.
He and Clinton got along and maintained a wonderful relationship for a decade. But as the war in the Balkans intensified that year, they found themselves on opposite sides. The NATO bombing of Serbia in that conflict inflamed anti-Western fluctuations in Russian popular opinion and may have contributed to Yeltsin’s choice of successor. This choice, made to call for growing nationalist sentiment, was Vladimir Putin.
Moment of “hot microphone”.
Putin’s problem has been Russia’s challenge for more than 20 years. He could position himself as a kind of ally during the war on terror, as American fears after the September 11, 2001 attacks paralleled Putin’s hostility to Muslims in the separatist province of Chechnya.
Putin stepped down to his chosen successor, Medvedev, in 2008, but soon realized the move was temporary. When Medvedev met with Obama at a conference in March 2012, part of their conversation was overheard on a “hot microphone”. Obama said he would “have more flexibility” after the U.S. election this year. Medvedev replied that he would “pass this information to Vladimir.”
Putin returned to the presidency just two months later and has since agreed to make himself a de facto lifelong president. Although Putin often opposed Obama, he was even more relentless against Hillary Clinton’s idea of the presidency, given her history of condemning Russian policy in general and Putin in particular.
As a result, some of Putin’s allies inside and outside the government have launched a long campaign to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election, a campaign documented in Special Attorney Robert Mueller’s 2019 report and the 2020 U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee report. year .
Neither Mueller nor the Senate committee accused Trump of directly treating the Russians in this regard, as he had long refused to “conspire” with Russia.
But while Biden seemed unable to resist Putin’s condemnation, at times Trump seemed inclined to court him – and provoked fierce rebuff from opponents in Congress. Trump himself sometimes described the Democrats’ reaction to his first two years in office as “Russia, Russia, Russia.”
Much of this stemmed from Mueller’s investigation, but the topic was still alive during Trump’s first impeachment. This process, which dominated most of 2019 in Washington, was the result of a phone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which Trump called on Ukrainians to investigate Biden. (Link to then-candidate Biden and his son Hunter.)
A characteristic feature of the Trump presidency was his tendency to praise Putin. They faced each other in the business world when Trump organized a beauty contest in Moscow and negotiated a hotel under the Trump brand. In the 2016 election year, Trump is known to have called on Russia to hack into US computers and find missing emails from Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Trump said it was not serious.
When U.S. intelligence reported that Russia interfered in the 2016 election (broke the democratic campaign’s communications and flooded social media with fake messages), Trump said Putin denied it and accepted the Russian’s word. “I do not understand why it would be Russia,” he said, standing next to Putin at a press conference in Helsinki in 2018. “I can tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
And even now, during his post-presidency, Trump keeps in touch with Russia in the news, asking Putin to “disclose” information he may have about the payment that Moscow’s wife’s wife allegedly made to Hunter Biden.