'War criminal': As Biden gets personal with Putin, US, Russia relationship hits a dangerous crisis

Biden’s efforts to stabilize a volatile relationship with Russia have run into the same road block – Putin – that his recent predecessors have faced.

WASHINGTON – When President Joe Biden met Vladimir Putin at an 18th century villa in Geneva last June for a three-hour tête-à-tête, he set aside concerns that the Russian president might view the high-profile meeting as a reward.

Biden, who sees foreign policy as the logical extension of personal relationships, claimed no illusions about Putin’s ambitions, including his designs on Ukraine. The president, after all, famously bragged about having told Putin he doesn’t have a soul.

But Biden’s effort to stabilize a volatile relationship with Russia ran into the same road block – Putin – that his recent predecessors had faced.

“They put a lot into it. They were willing to get along with Putin,” Daniel Fried, a former high-level foreign affairs official for both Democratic and Republican presidents, said of the Biden administration.

Shortly before Putin invaded Ukraine, however, a White House official confided to Fried, “Look where that got us.”

Now, Biden has united Western countries against Russia – a coordinated effort that will continue with a NATO summit in Brussels Thursday – and declared Putin a war criminal. He’s also called Putin a “murderous dictator” and a “pure thug” who is waging an immoral war against the people of Ukraine.

Those remarks have put Russian-American relations on the verge of rupture, Moscow warned the U.S. ambassador Monday.

In response, State Department spokesman Ned Price called it “awfully rich to hear a country speak about `inappropriate comments’ when that same country is engaged in mass slaughter.”

Price said the U.S. wants to maintain open lines of communication with Russia.

“But I’ll leave it to the Kremlin to speak to their thoughts,” he said.

Is Biden personalizing the relationship?

Biden’s vow to make Putin a “pariah” on the world stage and to label him a war criminal could be a risky personalization of the war.

“My own sense is, personalizing it like that, it complicates things,” said Bruce Jentleson, a Duke University professor and author of “The Peacemakers: Leadership Lessons from 20th Century Statesmanship.”  “If we’re thinking crisis resolution and limiting the escalation, what we know about Putin, that just makes it more difficult. I think we would have been better off if he didn't say it, even though it's true.”

But other experts said Biden’s harsh rhetoric was a natural evolution and an honest reaction to the unprovoked and bloody assault on Ukraine that has targeted civilians, crushed hospitals and leveled cities.

“Biden was very careful not to castigate him at the very beginning of his presidency,” said Will Pomeranz, acting director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, a Washington-based think tank dedicated to Russian and Eurasia research. “He started like many politicians in thinking that he could have a big conversation and a relationship with this man. But I think that all of the actions in Ukraine have for the future made that impossible.”



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