US Presidents love a Russian villain, Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) who says so.
The Republican coined the term Empire of Evil in 1983, heightening tensions with the Soviet Union to the point that there was almost nuclear war in November of that year without Washington being fully aware of the risk.
Warned that the Soviets had almost started a conflict in Europe in response to a NATO (Washington-led alliance) military exercise, Reagan lowered the ball slightly. Mikhail Gorbatchov quickly took over and the rest is history.
Joe Biden cannot be accused of having been misinformed about the sensitivity of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president whom he also described as an assassin during an interview on Wednesday.
The US president seems to have made a bet, that he can beat his Russian villain to show his will to the adversary he most fears, Xi Jinping’s China.
Biden himself has said he sees Beijing as Washington’s great strategic rival. This Thursday (18), the American and Chinese foreign ministers will have their first face-to-face meeting, in Alaska.
The Pentagon reports reaffirm Biden’s vision, while stressing that from a strictly military standpoint, Russia remains very dangerous for the United States.
The Democrat’s escalation has been shown in repeated protests that he speaks loudly in the Kremlin, such as in the announcement of largely symbolic sanctions for the poisoning and imprisonment of opponent Alexei Navalni against Russian officials.
Halfway, military provocations in the Arctic. Now, “the price to pay” will come for the ever-hazy accusations of meddling in the US electoral process, something that dates back to 2016 and would somehow have been repeated in 2020.
But to call a head of state in a country with a nuclear arsenal comparable to yours a killer seems wrong, and unprecedented. Biden is famous for slides, and maybe that’s it. The effect, however, is exactly what Putin could wish for.
Contested internally and with popularity at the lowest level of his presidency, although within the comfortable 60% range, the Russian leader may point to the old scenario of outside interference in the US attack.
As rhetoric, however, it seems to have limited effect. Putin’s 2020s and 2021s treated dissent not with compensation, but with heavy police repression.
Navalni is in a penal colony which, according to reports, owes little to the former Soviet gulag. More than 10,000 people have been arrested, deflating growing protests against Putin. The climate of the Russian thinking class is the worst, according to increasingly anonymous people.
The search for a credible external enemy is a classic recipe, already in use when Putin annexed Crimea in 2014, and Biden may have given him a present with criticism.
To make the equation more complex, war drums are played in eastern Ukraine. Kiev, with an increasingly unpopular president, is deploying military units to the region close to pro-Russian rebel-dominated areas in the region since the clashes seven years ago.
Moscow has given a not-so-subtle message: residents of the so-called Donbass who have Russian passports, and almost everyone is entitled to one, will be able to vote in the parliamentary elections in September. In other words, they are full citizens who, attacked, must be defended.
Analysts are unanimous in stressing that neither Putin nor his colleague Volodimir Zelensky has any interest in a war, which would be costly for both, perhaps fatal for the Ukrainian.
For the Kremlin, making Ukraine dysfunctional is enough to prevent it from being absorbed by the West, its strategic concern. But the threat is there, and growing military cooperation between the United States, NATO and the Ukrainians would make the situation flammable.
Across the vast Russian territory, at the tip known as North Korea, comes another warning. After the empty rapprochement between dictator Kim Jong-un and Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump, there is growing evidence in U.S. intelligence sectors that the Communist regime will be making a show of military might.
Kim has strengthened ties with Putin, according to reports that point to the opaque relationship between the countries. The dictator would only think of him if he decided to provoke Biden, but he can certainly calculate the fruits if the Russians like the process.
In this case, the hostility would be to launch its new intercontinental ballistic missile, presented at a parade last year. It’s a weapon that little is known about, but experts consider it even more capable of reaching the United States than previous versions.
Making the West nervous is a North Korean specialty, and the 2017 test cycle almost ended in war.
If Biden’s about-face on Putin was not accidental, it will be up to him to see whether it causes accidents along the way or leads to new blows, like the resumption of the Novo Start nuclear arms deal.