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Biden’s high-wire act with Putin: ‘This is like handling Chernobyl’

President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Geneva last June. Russia's present demands are based on Putin's purported long sense of grievance and his rejection of Ukraine and Belarus as truly separate, sovereign countries but rather as part of a Russian linguistic and Orthodox motherland.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Russia had seized the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine after a swift military action in 2014, but then-Vice President Joe Biden, who traveled to the region shortly afterward, sounded skeptical that the former Soviet state would ever reclaim its place at the very center of US foreign policy.

“We no longer think in Cold War terms,” Biden told The New Yorker that year, saying no other country was even close to equaling the United States. “Other than being crazy enough to press a button, there is nothing that Putin can do militarily to fundamentally alter American interests.”

Eight years later, Vladimir Putin, the Russian autocrat, is conspicuously reminding the world of the presence of those nuclear buttons as his military brutalizes Ukraine, and Biden is at the helm of something he once seemed to think far-fetched: a combustible crisis that feels hotter than the Cold War.

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Biden, a president who wanted to end American wars, is now trying to stop the next one from starting. He is seeking to punish Putin and shore up the global order he spent years tending as a senator and as vice president without pulling the United States into World War III — a task that will depend in part on his ability to read Putin, a tyrant who has only become more vexing, more isolated, and to some eyes more irrational with time.

“The consequences of this moment are as serious for our security as any since the Cuban Missile Crisis,” said Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, a close ally of the president who, he said, is “clear-eyed about how big a risk Putin is taking and he’s clear-eyed about how hard an opponent Putin is, and frankly how brutal.”

In recent days, Biden has ratcheted up his rhetoric, describing Putin as a “war criminal,” a “murderous dictator,” and a “pure thug,” even as he continues to stress the US will not directly fight Russia in Ukraine. Putin, meanwhile, appears consumed with grievances against NATO, railing against America’s “empire of lies.” The future of Europe, and maybe the world, may well depend in part on how the two men, both shaped in their views by the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, understand and deal with each other.

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Calculating what Putin wants and what he will do to get it will be difficult, as will efforts to steer him toward a face-saving off-ramp for halting the invasion, now into its fourth week, in which his ground forces are sustaining massive losses due to fierce resistance from Ukrainians.

“I’ve been on the Intel Committee off and on the entire time that Putin has been in charge of Russia, and I don’t think anybody’s ever figured him out very well, including our best analysts,” said Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, a Republican.

As Putin threatens to rain down consequences on countries who stand in the way of his invasion, Biden and his allies have carefully walked a narrow path of aiding Ukraine without entering into direct military conflict with Russia. While sanctions and weapons shipments from the US, Europe, and other countries have walloped the Russian economy and slowed its military’s advance, the administration has held off on other actions Ukraine has requested, including enforcing a no-fly zone with US and allied forces and shipping combat planes to the embattled country.

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The White House has also been careful to avoid amplifying calls from Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and others for Putin to be deposed as Russia’s leader — talk that experts believe could lead Putin, steeped in grievance against the West, to lash out.

That reticence, particularly around the combat planes, has frustrated members of Congress in both parties on Capitol Hill, sparking criticism that Biden and his aides are too concerned with what is in the Russian leader’s mind.

“I’m sick and tired of hearing the administration talk about, being worried about, what Putin’s thinking and what he’s going to do,” said Senator James Risch of Idaho, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “I want to hear from the administration what they’re doing to put in Putin’s mind a fear, a thought, of what we’re going to do.”

But outside analysts say the caution is necessary, as the specter of nuclear war looms large over any potential US-Russia conflict.

“We’re going to have to be extremely careful. This is like handling Chernobyl and trying to create a sarcophagus around it, because it really does have all kinds of dangerous spillover potential,” said Fiona Hill, a veteran Putin-watcher who served on the National Security Council under Trump, in a recent podcast. She criticized “loose talk” of a regime change displacing Putin as only fueling his aggression.

For his part, Putin must also weigh and predict Biden’s actions, as he gambles that the American president who pulled US troops out of Afghanistan last year after a decade of watching the country’s overseas engagements go awry will stick to his stated plan of keeping the US out of the conflict — as long as Russia stays within Ukraine’s borders.

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As more days tick by since the two leaders last spoke on Feb. 12, communication is now largely a game of signals and educated guesses, suggested Jeremy Shapiro, a former State Department official who is now the research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“It’s really very much about game theory, and about understanding signaling,” he said. “In order to understand signaling, you have to understand how specific people receive those signals.”

Biden has met Putin’s unpredictable and volatile signals with words and actions intended to be both blunt and clear, an effort to make the United States and its allies easier, not harder, for Putin to read and thus to avoid mixed messages. Biden threatened to impose debilitating sanctions in the event of an invasion and did just that, and drew on his long experience with European leaders to get them on board. He has vowed not to send troops to Ukraine, and promised just as clearly that NATO will defend “every inch” of its own territory.

“I want the Russians to be able to have some confidence that if they’re thinking of doing action A, I want them to be able to correctly predict what the American response is going to be, because that way they won’t miscalculate,” said Steven Pifer, a former ambassador to Ukraine and a retired foreign service officer.

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Biden comes to the task with years of experience watching, analyzing, and meeting with Putin, first by spending decades on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and then as a vice president who was tasked by President Obama with trying to buoy Ukraine as Putin sought to destabilize it.

“He really gets into the depth of personalities of leaders,” said Chuck Hagel, the Republican former senator who served as secretary of defense from 2013 to 2015, under Obama. “He talks a lot, but what I think is missing in a lot of that analysis is he listens, he listens very carefully.”

Biden first visited Moscow in 1973, when it was still the capital of the Soviet Union, and has been involved in key nuclear treaties between the United States and what is now Russia. As vice president, he visited Ukraine six times; in 2011, he met with Putin in Moscow — an encounter he colorfully recounted in one of his memoirs, describing him as “ice-cold calm” but “argumentative.”

“Mr. Prime Minister, I’m looking into your eyes,” Biden claims to have said, “I don’t think you have a soul.” Putin, he wrote, smiled back.

“We understand each other,” Putin said, according to Biden.

“And we did,” Biden added.

In the same memoir, Biden also described Putin as a leader willing to break the rules, “willing to test European resolve on the principle of the sanctity of borders.”

“Biden understands very well that Putin has imperial ambitions, and that he is someone who will act in a somewhat unpredictable manner to pursue strategic aims,” said Andrew Lohsen, a former monitoring officer who has worked on conflict resolution in Ukraine. “The question is, how well do we know Putin and his motivation … his tolerance for pain?”

Perhaps in a nod to those imperial ambitions, Biden and his team have framed the current tough sanctions as having the potential to diminish Russia, wiping away the progress Putin has made as a leader.

“The ruble is through the floor. Russia’s credit rating is in junk status. The stock market’s been closed for three weeks. We’ve seen an exodus of virtually every leading company, brand, firm from Russia,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week in a briefing with reporters. “Basically in the space of a few weeks, 30 years of Russia opening to the world and creating greater economic opportunity for their people has vanished as a result of President Putin’s terrible actions.”

The need for Biden and future American presidents to understand and reckon with the scope of Putin’s ambition will not necessarily end with the conflict in Ukraine, some experts warned.

“Ukraine is buying us all time to figure out what we’re going to do about Putin,” said Jim Townsend, a deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy during the Obama administration. “Is he going to go onto other conquests? Is he going to threaten NATO countries? How do you contain him?”

It’s a question the administration is confronting more aggressively than in the past. Biden’s tactic of issuing sweeping and coordinated sanctions on Russia, on its hugely wealthy industrial oligarchs, and on Putin himself, marks a stark contrast to the Obama administration’s more tepid response to Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. And Biden’s supporters say the weapons the US and its allies are supplying to Ukraine amount to a decisive show of support.

“Never before has the United States been this closely in conflict with the Russian military,” said Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut. “We are openly indirectly supporting a war against Russia right now in a way that we never did during the Cold War.”

As the invasion grinds on, and Russia kills more civilians in Ukraine, Biden’s posture could change. In calling Putin a “war criminal” for the first time on Wednesday, after weeks of avoiding the term, the president took a tougher stance against the Russian leader.

And over time, the pressure on Biden to do more is only likely to grow.

“We have one hand tied behind our back and one hand reaching out, and I think a lot of Americans, we don’t want to just sit back and watch a bully hit the little kid on the playground,” said Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican who is the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “At what point is a red line crossed?”


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her @jessbidgood.