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At Biden-Putin Summit, 2 'Cold-Eyed Realists' Meet Again


I know you, and you know me. That is what President Biden says he told Russian President Vladimir Putin on a call earlier this year. The two leaders do have history, the next chapter of which will unfold in Geneva next week when they meet for the first time as heads of state. Well, Susan Glasser of The New Yorker has covered both Biden and Putin for many years from both Washington and Moscow. And she is with us now to shed some light on their relationship.

Susan Glasser, welcome.

SUSAN GLASSER: Thank you so much, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So I'm going to take us back and start a decade ago because this was the first major face-to-face meeting between these two men. It's 2011, Moscow - Biden, of course, was vice president. Putin was taking a little sabbatical from the presidency. He was technically the prime minister of Russia, and Biden had come as part of this big push for a reset. Here's Biden on that trip.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We wanted to literally reset this relationship, reset it in a way that reflected our mutual interests so that our countries could move forward together.

KELLY: Susan, how did that reset go?

GLASSER: Well, let's just say that it ended more or less in 2014 with the Russian invasion and illegal annexation of Crimea and Vladimir Putin returning to the presidency. And so let's just say that they hoped for better, but it turned out as always, which is the famous phrase of a former Soviet leader that was much quoted around Russia when I lived there.

KELLY: Speaking of famous phrases, there's a story that Biden has told about that meeting with Putin. He's told it more than once. He told it most recently in an interview with ABC News.


BIDEN: I wasn't being a wise guy. I was alone with him in his office. That's how it came about. It was when President Bush had said, I looked in his eyes and saw his soul. I said, looked in your eyes, and I don't think you have a soul - and looked back at me and he said, we understand each other.

KELLY: (Laughter) Not a lot of trust there, going back a decade and more.

GLASSER: That's right. I think both of them, really, are cold-eyed realists when it comes to the other and when it comes to the interests of their countries. I think that Vladimir Putin is absolutely unsentimental, and Joe Biden is very realistic. Even in coming into this summit meeting with Putin, they've done everything they can to deflate expectations around it. And, in fact, because there have been so many provocations that we've seen recently from the Russians, Biden and his team are now suggesting that the point of this meeting is actually for Biden to look Putin in the eye now that he's president and say, essentially, no more screwing around with us, Mr. Tough Guy.

KELLY: It'll be interesting to find out how that translates into Russian as they look into each other's eyes. Let's keep trekking our way through the relationship. As you noted, the reset did not go to script a decade ago and, in fact, very quickly went in the other direction - Russia annexing Crimea. There's this huge diplomatic crisis, and Biden played a central role in how the U.S. responded.

GLASSER: Well, that's right, Mary Louise. I think that one thing that's important for people to understand is that Joe Biden's role in the reset was to spend a lot of time holding hands and reassuring Russia's neighbors who are the most immediately impacted by Putin's very aggressive policies - places like Georgia and Ukraine, both of which have been invaded by Russia in its post-Soviet incarnation. He spent a lot of time with the Baltics, with the Poles. And so in some ways, his views about Putin are very much colored by seeing the real-world consequences of Putin's policies on his neighbors.

KELLY: All right. Let's flip it around and look at it from the other side because we've been talking more from the Biden point of view. What about Putin? Do we know what he makes of Joe Biden?

GLASSER: Well, one thing we can say is that Joe Biden is Vladimir Putin's fifth United States president. There's not going to be any starry-eyed expectations, I think, on Putin's part about the United States. But remember a couple of things. Putin is more driven by domestic politics than, I think, he's often given credit for in Washington. Just because he's an autocratic leader doesn't mean there aren't politics in Russia. And, frankly, changing the subject is something that would be very welcome for Putin right now. We're not talking about his arrest of essentially Russia's leading dissident, about the fact that there's enormous fatigue with Putin after he's been in power for so long and has recently changed the constitution in order to enable himself to remain in power, potentially for the entirety of his life. And so I think both Biden and Putin may have the possibility for a certain kind of domestic political advantage in meeting with each other right now, even though they don't seem to have much of a positive agenda. It's not, like, a summit with big deliverables.

KELLY: I want to play a little taste of an interview that Biden did - this is on ABC with George Stephanopoulos - that our Moscow correspondent has told me did not go down well in Russia.


GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So you know Vladimir Putin. You think he's a killer?

BIDEN: Mmm hmm, I do.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So what price must he pay?

BIDEN: The price he's going to pay - well, you'll see shortly.

KELLY: So that's Biden saying he thinks Vladimir Putin is a killer shortly before going to meet him in Geneva and then saying he's going to pay a price, and you're going to see it shortly.

GLASSER: That's right. I mean, look. On the one hand, that mmm hmm is doing an awful lot of work there. You know, that was George Stephanopoulos' term - killer - not Biden's. I doubt he thought he was making major policy news in agreeing with that assessment. And look. You know, Russia has targeted opponents of its regime, like Alexei Navalny, domestically with lethal - potentially lethal nerve agents - and even internationally, gone onto the territory of the U.K. and gone after a former Russian agent, Sergei Skripal. And so, you know, I think Biden probably thought he was making a factual statement rather than a policy statement. But there's not going to be any illusions when these two meet each other about what they're dealing with.

KELLY: I'll note that Putin responded to that killer remark in the interview.


PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking in Russian).

KELLY: I've seen it translated a couple of different ways from the Russian but seems to boil down to, it takes one to know one - something along those lines. In the end, Susan Glasser, does it matter all that much what the personal relationship is between Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden? I mean, we all remember former President Trump made this huge, big deal about his personal rapport with foreign leaders and one-on-one negotiations. But, you know, to your point that Biden is going to be Putin's fifth American president, has any U.S. president ever figured out how to manage Putin?

GLASSER: (Laughter) Arguably, not all that successfully - the trajectory of Russia over the two decades of Putin's rule, you know, has been pretty consistent in moving away from democracy and moving away from the rapprochement with the West that still seemed possible in the first decade after the fall of the Soviet Union. And I've seen it again and again. New American presidents come in. You know, maybe they don't use the term reset the relationship, but in effect, that's what they do. And then there's a moment of crisis, a moment when Putin blows past the norms and expectations or invades another country, and the relationship deteriorates from there. Now, the difference this time is that it's already starting from such a low baseline, Mary Louise. So that, to me, is the difference - is that, you know, you're hearing a new administration come in from the get-go and say, you know, we want to tell it like it is with Putin and, you know, at least put this back into some kind of a manageable box.

KELLY: Susan Glasser of The New Yorker.

Thank you, Susan.

GLASSER: Thank you so much, Mary Louise.