WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - President Joe Biden agreed that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a “killer,” and said in an interview with ABC News that Russia would pay for alleged interference in US elections.
His comments, recorded on Tuesday (March 16), came the same day as a US intelligence community report that Putin ordered influence operations to hurt Biden’s candidacy, favouring former President Donald Trump just as the intelligence community says the Russian leader did in 2016 against then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Putin “will pay a price” for the interference, Biden said.
In a “long talk” with the Russian leader, Biden said he told him, “I know you and you know me. If I establish this occurred, then be prepared.”
After ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos asked Biden if he believes Putin is “a killer,” Biden murmured agreement and said “I do,” without elaborating.
In a diplomatic protest after the interview aired on Wednesday, the Kremlin recalled its US ambassador, Anatoly Antonov. Without mentioning Biden’s comments, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Moscow still seeks to improve relations.
“We’re interested in preventing an irreversible degradation if the Americans recognize the risks associated with that,” she said in a statement.
The ruble was trading 1.2 per cent weaker at 73.69 per dollar at the close of trading in Moscow after sinking as much as 1.6 per cent earlier, the biggest drop since Feb 25. The benchmark MOEX stocks index ended a four-day winning streak, sinking 2.3 per cent. Yields on 10-year ruble bonds were up 7 basis points at 6.88 per cent, near their highest in a year.
Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the lower house of Russia’s parliament and a longtime Putin ally, dismissed Biden’s comments as “hysterics born of helplessness,” saying they “insult the citizens of our country.”
Many officials in Putin’s government and associates of the Russian leader already live under US sanctions due to previous rounds of punishment for election interference, attacks on political opponents and Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, leaving unclear what Biden may target.
New US sanctions could come as soon as next week and may target Russia’s oligarchs and others close to Putin, according to two people familiar with the matter. The impact of the penalties may be muted, as Russians hit with US sanctions usually don’t maintain US bank accounts or have plans to travel to the country.
Biden said that in a past conversation with Putin, he told him that he “looked in your eyes and I don’t think you have a soul.”
The remark was a reference to George W. Bush’s 2001 assessment of Putin, when the former US president said that “I looked the man in the eye” and “was able to get a sense of his soul.”
In December, then-director of national intelligence and Trump ally John Ratcliffe held up completion of Tuesday’s report, saying it needed to more fully reflect the national security threat posed by China, according to people familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity owing to the sensitivity of the information.
But in the end the report indicated that China did not “deploy interference efforts” in an effort to change the election outcome.
Earlier on Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denounced the US intelligence report as “absolutely groundless.”
“It’s regrettable that the beginning of each presidential term in the US seems to be linked to imposing sanctions on Russia,” he said.
Putin has vociferously denied allegations his government is behind attacks on opponents. While the Kremlin has said it hopes for improved relations under the Biden administration, officials have few illusions that ties will get much better.