As Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin face off in a video call Tuesday over a Russian military build-up on the border with Ukraine, we look at the icy relations between the two leaders.
Biden’s description of the Russian president as “a killer” was just one of several sharp exchanges.
– Tougher line –
Shortly after taking office in January, Biden gives a tough speech ditching Donald Trump’s muted approach to Moscow and Putin, for whom Trump had voiced admiration.
“I made it clear to President Putin that the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions, interfering with our elections, cyber-attacks and poisoning its citizens are over,” Biden said in February.
The Kremlin slams what it calls Biden’s “very aggressive and unconstructive rhetoric”.
– ‘Killer’ –
In an interview in March, Biden says Putin will “pay a price” for allegedly trying to undermine his candidacy in the US 2020 election.
Asked if he thought Putin was “a killer”, Biden replies, “I do.”
The comments spark the biggest crisis between Russia and the US in years, with Moscow recalling its ambassador and warning that ties were on the brink of outright “collapse”.
Putin also mocks Biden, saying, “It takes one to know one.”
– ‘Time to deescalate’ –
A bid to cool tensions comes in April when Biden, after announcing sanctions against Russia, says “now is the time to deescalate”.
During a phone call, Biden says he was “clear with President Putin that we could have gone further” but adds that Washington is “not looking to kick off a cycle of escalation and conflict with Russia.”
– No illusions –
Before their first face-to-face summit in Geneva on June 16, Biden does not let up, saying the US will push the Kremlin on its human rights record.
“I’ll be making it clear that we will not stand by and let him abuse those rights,” Biden says.
– Hollywood talk –
In an interview with US television, Putin chuckles when asked whether he was “a killer”.
“I’ve gotten used to attacks from all kinds of angles,” he said, adding that “killer” was a “macho” term common in Hollywood.
Such discourse “is part of US political culture where it’s considered normal… It is not considered normal here,” he said.
– ‘A worthy adversary’ –
On the eve of the meeting, Biden calls Putin a “tough” and “a worthy adversary”.
Tellingly, the two men did not hold a joint press conference after three and a half hours of talks.
However, they agree to return ambassadors to each other’s capitals.
Putin said he sensed “no animosity” while Biden agreed the talks had been “constructive”.
– Russian cyber crooks –
A Russia-based hacker group is blamed for a massive ransomware attack in late June that hits some 1,500 business.
It is taken offline days after Biden calls Putin to act.
Russia is pointedly not invited to a 30-nation anti-cyber crime summit in Washington in October.
– ‘His tundra is burning’ –
On November 2, Biden lays into Putin for not attending the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow.
“His tundra is burning — literally… He has serious, serious climate problems, and he is mum on willingness to do anything,” he said.
– Ukraine stand-off –
Tensions escalate further in late November as Ukraine claims Russia is massing 100,000 troops on its border.
Putin wants the US to promise that Ukraine will never join NATO.
With the video call hastily agreed, Biden warns Russia will suffer “genuine and meaningful and enduring costs” if it takes military action.
– ‘Augean stables’ –
Despite the rhetoric, hours before the call Putin’s spokesman says “the Augean stables” — meaning impossible task — of repairing relations was in fact possible.