On Saturday, near the end of a speech made in Poland, President Joe Biden said of the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” Amid criticism that the comment amounted to a call for regime change, the White House sought to backtrack, and Biden told reporters on Monday that he was merely expressing disgust with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and not announcing a change in American policy. “I was expressing the moral outrage I felt towards this man,” Biden stated. “The last thing I want to do is engage in a land war or a nuclear war with Russia.” Nevertheless, the remark left open a number of questions, among them: how Putin might respond, and whether a negotiated endgame exists. (On Tuesday, following reports that Russia may be pulling back on several key demands, its negotiators met the Ukrainian side in Istanbul for their first face-to-face peace talks in weeks.)
I recently spoke by phone with Angela Stent, an expert on U.S.-Russia relations who served in the Office of Policy Planning under multiple Administrations, and also on the National Intelligence Council. Stent is currently a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; her most recent book is “Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and with the Rest.” During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed whether Biden’s comment will affect Putin’s Ukraine strategy, what a plan for Ukrainian “neutrality” might look like in practice, and the biggest mistake in post-Cold War American policy toward Russia.
You’ve written a lot about the ways Russia and the United States interact, or don’t interact. And there’s been a lot of angst about Biden’s comment. Very specifically, what is the problem with the comment? Why is it something that an American President should not say, if in fact you don’t think an American President should say it?
Well, first of all, it was obviously from the heart. He’d spent the day partly with refugees, and I’m sure it was a very emotional day for him to be in Poland and see all of that. And he obviously meant what he said. The reason it’s problematic is that world leaders aren’t supposed to say things like that publicly. And I think people have been concerned because there’s a war going on, and the concern is that making a remark like that could make things worse. European leaders, particularly President Macron, of France, have complained and said that they are trying to negotiate with Putin, and that they are trying to end the war, and that comments like this aren’t helpful. All of those who are involved in these ongoing negotiations prefer some ambiguity here. And that’s why there have been concerns about this. But obviously there are people who think that he said what he felt and it was O.K. to say it.
Just to nail down on what the concern is: Is the idea that Americans should not say things like this because it’s not our business who the leader of Russia is, or Putin will use it as propaganda, or this would change how Putin personally views the West or change what he’s able to convince his citizens about what the West wants? What do you think the heart of the concern is?
Look, Putin has been saying for years that the United States wants regime change in Russia. He said that explicitly, that “they’re trying to defeat us, invade us, cut us up.” So the fact that this was said explicitly is not going to change his view of the United States, which is pretty bad, and he has already convinced himself that we want regime change. It’s not really going to change what the Russian population thinks, because Russia’s state-run media has been telling them for a long time that the United States is the enemy, and that it was going to use Ukraine as a way of invading Russia. I think it’s more that we officially, as the United States, don’t go around saying that we want regime change, and the line is that it’s up to the people of country X to decide who their ruler is.
Sometimes we do go around saying that we want regime change and decide that for other countries, but, yes, go on.
Yeah. Saddam Hussein, for example. But I think it’s partly because what we’re supposed to say, or what it’s politically correct to say, is that it’s up to the citizens of each country to elect their leader. But I think there is also, possibly, a concern not that Putin’s view of the United States has now changed but that Putin and the people around him can use what President Biden said as a way to justify an even harsher military onslaught in Ukraine, and maybe to prolong the war. I personally don’t really think that saying something like that is going to have an impact on what they actually do, but the concern is that they could use what he said to justify that.
Right, but then it seems like everyone is playacting to some degree. Putin is pretending that he’s found something new out, his propaganda will say the same thing, and people in the West will say, “You shouldn’t have said this, because Putin’s going to use it.”
Yeah. But I think the other thing is the European allies. Biden has worked very hard, and he’s been very successful in getting everyone on board with his policy. And I guess to say something like that, which is not what the other European leaders are going to say, could also cause some more ripples in trying to keep this coalition together.
I was reading your most recent book, and one point you make is that it can be especially important to have communications between the American and Russian Presidents because there aren’t that many lower-level diplomatic communications, or as many cordial relationships between the two countries at many different levels as there are with American allies, and so on. Is that a fair characterization?
Yes, and I would say it’s even more so now because of all the expulsions of diplomats and spies in the past few years. We have a skeleton staff at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. We do have the Ambassador, who is a holdover from the Trump Administration. He hasn’t gone, thank goodness. But there’s really very few channels for communication left anymore. And, whereas you do have European leaders who’ve met with Putin physically, or speak to him daily on the phone, apart from a couple of phone calls that President Biden had with Putin in the last month, as far as we know there has been no direct communication between them.
Is that problematic? Do you think that the White House should take more of a proactive approach to talking with him?
Yeah. I think a number of people have for the past month been saying, “If only there was someone, an American, who could go and have a private channel and talk to Putin.” Henry Kissinger used to meet regularly with Putin as a back channel. And now, again, as far as we know there is no one who is performing that function, and, in a way, it would be good if there could be someone who could meet with him. I don’t know what it would produce, but at least make the gesture of trying to figure out if there’s some other way of getting through to him. It’s very difficult to do that, but I think it would be better. I think the lack of communication at the top is something that has to worry us. There are channels of communication. We know that at lower levels, for instance, there are military channels still going on so that hopefully there won’t be any direct conflict between Russia and any NATO member. But that doesn’t seem to be happening too much at the higher levels.
You’ve written extensively about the Russian-German relationship going back to the Cold War. There’s been a lot written in the West about how this has been a transformational moment for Germany in terms of its military, in terms of its energy supplies. But Volodymyr Zelensky has seemed, when he’s talked about it recently, more skeptical that Germany has completely gone in this direction, and moved away from Russia. What is your sense?