Take Joe Biden at his word. He meant everything he said about Vladimir Putin. He didn’t misspeak or deliver an off-message gut statement. This was real – and deliberate.
First Biden said that Putin was a war criminal – and the punditocracy was shocked. Sure, he’s a ruthless, violent dictator, but why call him a war criminal?
Then in March, at the end of his speech in Warsaw, Biden said: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” The foreign policy ecosystem went apoplectic. Was Biden declaring a policy of regime change in Russia? Was this a major strategic point of departure without consulting the ecosystem?
An anxious White House unsuccessfully tried to walk the statement back with Talmudic explanations that Biden didn’t really mean what you may deduce.
Then, this week in Menlo, Iowa, Biden said that Russia was committing genocide – and the Beltway mavens and European connoisseurs said that this was just unhelpful.
“Your family budget, your ability to fill up your tank, none of it should hinge on whether a dictator declares war and commits genocide half a world away,” he said, qualifying his remarks by adding: “And we’ll let the lawyers decide internationally whether or not it qualifies” as genocide. But he made sure everyone got the point by adding: “but it sure seems that way to me.”
The three statements sent the media and foreign policy community into full pandemonium. First came the Putin experts, always sensitive to how the fragile Russian president might construe such harsh statements. These remarks, they said, corner him, propel him to escalate; he’ll see them as further proof that the United States is after him and create a disincentive for him to end the war.
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Then came the armchair gerontologists. He misspoke, these were gaffes, he drifts off script, he wasn’t alert. Aside from being silly and offensive, these are baseless explanations. And the administration did its useless best to minimize what the media called “damage” by framing Biden's comments not as policy or posture but as a natural, human reaction to Russian atrocities.
Except that there was no strategic damage to speak of; no gaffes, nothing of the sort. Biden not only spoke his mind, he did it intentionally. Sometimes, even in international politics, the two are reconcilable.
Biden meant every word and every term he used. He had three objectives. First, to shake Putin’s confidence and sow uncertainty in what he believes Washington’s next moves are. Second, to brand him as a reckless, brutal and dangerous dictator, consolidating his pariah status.
Third, to signal to China: Look who your ally is. China is evidently unhappy with Putin’s invasion, even less impressed with his political and military debacle, and concerned about his transition from strategic asset to possible liability. But at the same time it believes that an alliance with him is part of a zero-sum game with America, so maintaining the partnership with a weakened Russia is beneficial to China, or so Beijing believes.
Joe Biden is a Cold Warrior. His formative years as a politician, and later as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, were in the context of the American-Soviet rivalry and division of the world into competing spheres of influence. But it was as vice president under Barack Obama between 2009 and 2017 that Biden witnessed the reemergence of Putin and his messianic quest to restore Russian greatness.
Biden, and to a very large extent the three foreign policy shapers around him – Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and CIA Director William Burns – identified a resurgent Putin destined to exert a super-sovereignty model inside the former Soviet Union (including Ukraine, Georgia and Kazakhstan) and delineate a sphere of influence covering the former Warsaw Pact nations. They realized that Putin was uninhibited and ready to use force.
The Ukraine invasion vindicated those assumptions and Putin behaved exactly the way those Americans expected him to: violently, ruthlessly, casually committing atrocities, defiant at every stage. That’s why Biden genuinely believes that Putin is a war criminal who shouldn’t stay in power.
Biden’s genocide statement is somewhat more complicated. The term was first used in 1944 by Polish historian Raphael Lemkin to describe the Nazi policy to annihilate Europe’s Jews. The concept was codified as an international crime in the Genocide Convention of 1948, now signed by more than 150 countries including Russia as a successor state to the Soviet Union.
In terms of international law, it’s hard to prove a country’s intent to kill, which is why mass killings in Cambodia in 1970, Rwanda in 1994 and the Balkans in the ‘90s were defined as massacres rather than genocide, as if there were a moral difference.
Biden therefore based his genocide accusation against Putin on the broader, more flexible UN definition under which genocide can mean the deliberate and indiscriminate killing of members of an ethnic group, creating “unbearable conditions” or forcibly transferring children. All these elements have appeared in Ukraine since Putin's invasion.
But it’s not the exact legal language that’s important here. Rather, it’s the U.S. and British intelligence assessment that in the next two weeks, Russia intends to escalate the war in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region and possibly launch new attacks on Kyiv and the Black Sea cities in the south.
Putin needs a triumphant narrative and has to escalate to achieve this, given that harsh Western sanctions are taking a very high toll on the Russian economy. Given the failures of the last 50 days of war, Putin has made some Soviet-style HR moves.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has experienced a surprising series of cardiac issues and is apparently out of power, even if not yet officially out of office. And Gen. Sergey Beseda, head of the Fifth Service – counterintelligence in former Soviet countries – has reportedly been arrested with over 100 of his officers.
It’s amusingly – and glaringly – ironic if the head of an organization headquartered in the notorious Lubyanka Prison in Moscow is now behind bars, albeit in Lefortovo Prison across town.
These aren’t changes stemming from a military failure and a recalibration, but political purges by an apprehensive Putin. The dictator’s paranoia, the Biden administration believes, must be exacerbated; he needs to be constantly disoriented by what the United States and NATO are doing.
This is why Biden made his genocide and war-criminal-can’t-stay-in-power statements. These were no off-script gaffes.