Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin met face to face for the first time in March 2011, in Moscow. The first was then vice president of the United States and had the mission of convincing the Russian — prime minister, at the time — that he should not fear the new deployment of missile launchers in Europe, which were intended to intercept possible attacks from Iran. Biden recalled that when George W. Bush met Putin, he said he had looked into his eyes and caught “an insight into his soul.” Biden found nothing during that fruitless appointment. When he finished, he smiled at his host and said: “Mr. Prime Minister, I am looking you in the eye. I don’t think you have a soul.” The other replied: “I see we understand each other.”
The Crimean War would break out three years later. Biden had seen first-hand the protests against the pro-Russian government during a trip to kyiv and helplessly contemplated the subsequent illegal annexation of that peninsula. Then the breaches of the Minsk treaty. He was hung up on the phone by the Ukrainian crisis last Thanksgiving that he spent with his son Beau, sentenced for cancer. The Democrat recounts all these episodes in Promise Me, Dad, a memoir of the year of Beau’s fight against the tumor, which coincided with the deliberation on running for the 2016 presidential elections. In them, Putin is an omnipresent character. Beau died in 2015. Biden did not appear in the elections. Then came Donald Trump.
The putinologists have established that Ukraine is almost personal to Putin. Putin and Ukraine are also a personal account for Biden. Seven years later, history has brought the political veteran, almost octogenarian, face to face again against one of his black beasts, in the midst of a monumental European crisis. Faced with less promising forecasts, the storm has strengthened the battered transatlantic ties after the stormy Trump era, something that can only be understood from a double movement by Washington.
Biden, who is traveling this week to Brussels and Poland, first launched a risky diplomatic gamble, that of sharing arsenals of intelligence information with European and NATO allies about the Kremlin’s plans, multiplying senior officials’ trips to Europe during the months before the invasion to discuss sanctions. He publicly sounded alarm bells that the attack was imminent. He aired the possible punishments that he would apply. Then, once the war started, he took a step back and gave the leading role to the European partners.
“One thing that Putin did not want to do is unite the Western front, but he has failed. Biden is deeply Atlanticist and has done a fabulous job in coordination, information and dialogue with allies. He has made a special effort to speak not only with NATO allies; but also with European leaders and I think the Europeans have welcomed this. That next week he will attend not only the NATO summit, but also the European Council, is a sign of that, ”concurs Daniel Hamilton, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and former director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations.
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“Masterpiece of diplomacy”
From Brussels, Rosa Balfour, director of the Carnegie Europe analysis center, describes the US strategy with intelligence information as a “masterpiece of public and private diplomacy”. “European governments had started preparations, but they remained incredulous because they considered that Putin would not launch that bet and, in private, they wondered why Biden kept talking about invasion,” she says. “When this happened, on February 24, everything changed and everyone was ready for sanctions. Since then, cooperation between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada has been unprecedented in intensity and effectiveness, according to people involved,” she continues.
That’s when Washington put down the megaphone for two crucial weeks. He had just demonstrated a transcendental success of his intelligence services, which consolidated the bloc’s unity, but the United States announced personal sanctions against Putin only after the European Union did; The same thing happened with the blockade of the SWIFT international payment system, the closure of airspace to Russian airlines or the cancellation of Nord Stream 2.
That the president of the United States was not the driving force behind the reprisals against Moscow helped European unity, between governments, and within the countries themselves, where the memory of warmongering adventures with the war in Iraq continue to be used as arguments for almost 20 years then. And the fact that leaders like the Frenchman Emmanuel Macron or the German Olaf Scholz have taken center stage in these two weeks, especially in direct talks with Putin, has made it difficult for the Russian leader to explain this crisis to his citizens as a duel with Washington, a old villain very handy for the communication strategy of the Kremlin.
“It is important that the Europeans are seen as responsible for the response to Russia, not only because the conflict is happening in Europe, but also because the credibility of the United States is not what it was. Skepticism about Washington’s motivations remains in European public opinion and, in one part, also anti-American and anti-NATO sentiments. The Biden Administration is aware of the image problem it has had since the United States intervened in Iraq with false arguments. In addition to that, the economic and humanitarian consequences of the sanctions are going to be felt disproportionately in Europe in energy prices and in the flow of refugees”, explains Balfour.
Biden arrived at the White House in January 2021 with the promise of reestablishing ties with Europe and burying the years of conflict of his predecessor, Donald Trump, who treated old allies as adversaries and showed a disconcerting complicity with Putin himself. . After that tour of reconciliation in June, the good words and gestures, Biden committed two cathedral stumbles: the mess with the withdrawal from Afghanistan in August and, immediately afterwards, the agreement to provide nuclear submarines to Australia, which included the United Kingdom , and it was done with the backs of the European partners.
This crisis has given Biden the opportunity to make amends, but it has also shown, in the opinion of Daniel Hamilton, a deeper shift in the White House: the return of the United States “as a European power”, as opposed to the “power in Europe”, it had been in the last decade. Hamilton explains it this way: “The United States was, for 60 or 70 years, a European power, which means that it was completely involved in whatever the Europeans did with each other, it was always a part of any agreement, coalition or compromise because it gave guarantees that it could work. I think that, without the United States, the old European rivalries would have resurfaced. “This —he continues—, he changed in the last 10 years or more, before the arrival of Trump. It became a power in Europe, which means that you only get involved in things selectively, based on one interest or another. Biden understands this very well and wants to show that the United States remains a European power, that we remain fully involved in what is happening. That is a change from the last two Administrations. Whether or not it lasts is something else.”
Biden met Putin again last June, at a bilateral summit in Geneva that did little good. In the press conference after that event, before a dazzling green landscape typical of the Swiss summer, the American refused to take stock of the event or venture results. Much less, answer if the former agent now inspired more confidence. “This is not about trust, it’s about mutual interest,” he said, “the real test will be in six months.” He finally reached eight. Also for Western powers.
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