Biden and Putin, two children of the Cold War, face off in new confrontation

US President Biden on Feb 25 decided to impose sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin, targeting him personally. PHOTOS: NYTIMES,AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - As United States President Joe Biden tells the story, he was blunt with Russian leader Vladimir Putin during a meeting in Moscow more than a decade ago. "I'm looking into your eyes, and I don't think you have a soul," Mr Biden recalled telling the KGB veteran.

Mr Putin smiled. "We understand one another," he said.

Now, as the US 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 never before, trying to anticipate and outmanoeuvre each other with the fate of millions of people in the balance.

Not since Mr John F. Kennedy and Mr Nikita Khrushchev squared off over Berlin and Cuba have an American president and Russian leader gone eyeball to eyeball in quite such a dramatic fashion.

Although the two nuclear-armed states are not poised for war directly with each other, as they were six decades ago, the showdown between Mr Biden and Mr Putin nonetheless holds enormous consequences for the world order that may be felt for years to come.

Mr Biden has denounced Mr Putin as "the aggressor" for invading Ukraine and vowed to make him "a pariah on the international stage".

To that end, Mr Biden decided last Friday (Feb 25) to impose sanctions on Mr Putin himself, targeting him personally in a way that never happened even during the Cold War.

Mr Putin, for his part, is testing Mr Biden's mettle at a time when the Russians have concluded that the US is divided and distracted at home, leaving little room for consensus.

"They're coming from two different planets, and it's difficult to see where that intersects," said Mr Frank Lowenstein, who was on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Mr Biden was its chair.

Mr Biden believes in the rules-based system that Mr Putin is trying to tear down.

"He almost seems to personify the old order of things," Mr Lowenstein said of Mr Biden. "Whereas, Mr Putin in some ways personifies the new lack of order."

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Over the past few weeks, Mr Biden has spent endless hours with advisers and intelligence officials trying to figure out what is in Mr Putin's head and how to influence his calculations - without success so far.

The Russian leader has long harboured bitterness about Ukraine and denied that it was genuinely an independent state, but briefers told Mr Biden that Mr Putin seemed to grow more extreme in his thinking during his isolation over the past two years amid the coronavirus pandemic.

More than most world leaders, Mr Putin has been a virtual recluse, keeping distant even from his own circle, as dramatised by video images in recent days of him sitting far across a room from other Russian officials or visiting foreign leaders.

After more than two decades in power and nearing his 70th birthday, Mr Putin has seemed more focused lately on his legacy, Mr Biden's team has told the president.

American officials are debating whether Mr Putin has become unbalanced.

"I wish I could share more, but for now I can say it's pretty obvious to many that something is off with #Putin," Senator Marco Rubio, and the top GOP member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, who has access to some of the same intelligence as Mr Biden, wrote on Twitter on Friday night.

Smoke rises after recent shelling in Kyiv on Feb 26, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

As Russian troops gathered near the Ukrainian border, Mr Biden sought to engage Mr Putin by getting on the telephone with him and sending every envoy he could to meet any Russian official who would talk, but his call went nowhere and so did the other discussions.

The challenge is this: If Mr Putin, in the later stages of his reign, is trying to rewrite history by reversing what he sees as the injustice of the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union and rebuilding the old empire, then traditional tools of deterrence and diplomacy may not be enough to get him to abandon such a messianic mission.

So Mr Biden in recent weeks has emphasised solidarity with Europe to restore the unity of the trans-Atlantic alliance that frayed under former president Donald Trump, who regularly criticised America's friends more than he did Mr Putin.

That diplomatic spadework led both sides of the Atlantic to decide Friday to target Mr Putin himself by going after his money held abroad.

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In the face of a previous Russian troop build-up near Ukraine last spring, Mr Biden agreed to a summit meeting with Mr Putin in Geneva over the objection of some advisers who worried it was rewarding the Kremlin leader, who, as it turned out, was more intent on an unstable and unpredictable relationship.

If Mr Biden underestimated his counterpart, Mr Putin may have done the same.

Perhaps influenced by the chaotic US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer, Mr Putin knew that the US had no appetite to commit forces to Ukraine and may have calculated that Mr Biden would not otherwise strongly resist Russian aggression, according to American and Russian analysts.

But although some critics believe he should be even tougher, Mr Biden was unrelenting in calling out Mr Putin's plans to invade Ukraine in recent weeks and has rallied European allies into a more or less common front.

Mr Biden and Mr Putin are both children of the Cold War, raised, educated and married in an era when the spectre of a planet-ending conflict between the US and the Soviet Union hovered over everything.

Yet they emerged from that twilight struggle with radically different views of how it ended: One celebrating it as a victory for freedom and democracy, the other mourning it as a disaster for his nation and people.

They both come from modest upbringings and are products of their disparate systems, but they rose to power along distinct paths. Mr Biden, 79, is a backslapping politician who relies on the force of his upbeat personality to drive diplomacy, while Mr Putin, 69, is a dour former intelligence agent who nurses resentments and conspiracy theories.

Mr Putin never talks about his family, while Mr Biden can hardly stop talking about his.

Mr Putin is a dour former intelligence agent who nurses resentments and conspiracy theories. PHOTO: REUTERS

Mr Putin spent no time in elective politics before being plucked out of obscurity to succeed Mr Boris Yeltsin, while Mr Biden spent a lifetime running for office.

They each have a penchant for macho exhibitionism - Mr Putin posing for pictures shirtless or with tigers, and Mr Biden showing off his muscle cars and boasting that he would like to beat up Mr Trump.

"Biden's a retail politician, and Putin is from the covert security services who runs with a Mafia-like inner circle," said Ms Heather Conley, president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a group that promotes trans-Atlantic relations.

"Putin's vision is of a grievance-filled history that he is seeking to overturn, and President Biden's history is of an American victory at the end of the Cold War and the positive power of alliances and freedom and democracy."

For a time, American presidents thought they could make common cause with Mr Putin.

After he took over as prime minister in 1999 and president in 2000, Mr Putin seemed determined to bring Russia into the West, aligning himself with President George W. Bush after 9/11 and even welcoming US troops into former Soviet territory.

In 2002, he said that the Baltic republics had every right to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) if they wanted to.

But after the Rose Revolution in the former Soviet republic of Georgia in 2003 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 brought to power pro-Western governments, Mr Putin suspected the uprisings were US-sponsored dress rehearsals for a plot to take him out.

While objecting to the Iraq War, he still cared enough about international approval to host the Group of Eight powers at a specially rebuilt palace outside St Petersburg in 2006.

But by the next year, he broke with the West in a blistering speech at the Munich Security Conference blasting the US-led order.

Mr Putin's war with Georgia in 2008 and annexation of Crimea and sponsorship of separatist uprisings in Ukraine in 2014 signalled a revanchist strategy of undoing the Soviet collapse, which he termed the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century.

And after he concluded that street protests against him in 2011 were somehow the work of Ms Hillary Rodham Clinton, he authorised a clandestine operation to help defeat her in 2016 and elect Mr Trump.

Mr Biden has a long history with Russian officials as well.

A photo from June 16, 2021, shows US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva. PHOTO: AFP

In 1979, as a senator, he met Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, and when he became President Barack Obama's vice-president, Mr Biden was the one who suggested the two sides "press the reset button".

But after tensions rose, he was assigned to lead support for Ukraine, putting him at odds with Mr Putin.

When he visited Moscow in 2011, Mr Biden held what he described as a contentious meeting with Mr Putin, who at the time held the position of prime minister again but was still the country's paramount leader.

"Putin was ice-cold calm throughout, but argumentative from start to finish," Mr Biden recalled in a memoir. He wrote that he told Mr Putin about his efforts to keep Georgia's hot-headed leader, Mr Mikheil Saakashvili, from antagonising Moscow.

"I speak to Saakashvili regularly on the phone and I urge him not to take provocative actions, just as I urge you to restore Georgia's sovereignty," Mr Biden said.

"Oh," replied Mr Putin, the old spy, "we know exactly what you say to Mr Saakashvili on the phone".

Whether Mr Biden actually told Mr Putin that he had no soul at this meeting or embellished the story as some suspect, the point was that the Vice-President was trying to distinguish himself from Mr Bush's famous comment that he "was able to get a sense of his soul" upon first meeting Mr Putin.

Mr John Beyrle, who was the US ambassador at the time and sat in on Mr Biden's meeting with the Russian leader, recalled that Mr Putin delighted in throwing the Americans off guard with a surprise proposal to loosen visa rules between the two countries, but otherwise it was "just a plain vanilla meeting".

"I don't even remember the chemistry or the body language being terrible," he said.

But Mr Putin was not oozing in warmth, he noted: "Talk about expressionless. Very controlled guy."

It was a contrast with Mr Biden.

"Obviously, they're very different people," Beyrle said.

A decade later, the two men who thought they understood each other find themselves on opposite sides of a collision that is shaking the world.

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