BRUSSELS — President Joe Biden frequently talks about what he sees as central in executing effective foreign policy: building personal relationships.
But unlike his four most recent White House predecessors, who made an effort to build a measure of rapport with Vladimir Putin, Biden has made clear that the virtue of fusing a personal connection might have its limits when it comes to the Russian leader.
The American president, who is set to meet with Putin face to face on Wednesday in Geneva, is mindful of Putin’s ability to survive even as his country has diminished as a world economic power.
Biden has repeated an anecdote about his last meeting with Putin, 10 years ago when he was vice president and Putin was serving as prime minister. Putin had taken a break from the presidency because the Russian constitution at the time prohibited a third consecutive term, but he was still seen as Russia’s most powerful leader.
Biden told biographer Evan Osnos that during that meeting in 2011, Putin showed him his ornate office in Moscow. Biden recalled poking Putin — a former KGB officer — that “it’s amazing what capitalism will do.”
Biden said he then turned around and standing inches from Putin said, “Mr. Prime Minister, I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.” Biden said Putin smiled and responded: “We understand one another.”
Putin, for his part, said in an NBC News interview aired Monday that he didn’t remember such an exchange. “I do not remember this particular part of our conversations,” Putin said.
Biden’s comment was in part a dig at former President George W. Bush, who faced ridicule after his first meeting with Putin when he claimed that he had “looked the man in the eye” and “was able to get a sense of his soul.” But in replaying his decade-old exchange with Putin, Biden also has attempted to demonstrate he is clear-eyed about the Russian leader in a way his predecessors weren’t.
Biden and Putin are now meeting again, at a moment when the US-Russia relationship seems to get more complicated by the day. Biden has repeatedly taken Putin to task — and levied sanctions against Russian entities and individuals in Putin’s orbit — over allegations of Russian interference in the 2020 election and the hacking of federal agencies in what is known as the SolarWinds breach.
Despite the sanctions, Putin has been unmoved. Cyber attacks in the US originating from Russian-based hackers in recent weeks have also impacted a major oil pipeline and the largest meat supplier in the world. Putin has denied Kremlin involvement.