Moscow announced, on March 17, that it is recalling “for consultations” its ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, after United States President Joseph Biden’s strong words against his Russian counterpart. In a pre-taped interview for ABC News, when asked by anchor George Stephanopoulos, “You know Vladimir Putin; do you think he’s a killer?” Biden replied, “Mmm hmm, I do,” before adding, “the price he’s going to pay, you’ll see shortly” (Kommersant, March 18).
This was taken in Moscow as an outrageous affront warranting the recall of an ambassador. The damage was further aggravated by problems with translation. The word “killer,” which has various connotations in modern English, especially in modern argot, was translated into Russian as “ubiytsa” which in Russian actually means “murderer.” The front-page story on the matter in Kommersant, in fact, stated that neither Biden nor Stephanopoulos specified what particular “murder” Putin was being accused of (Kommersant, March 18). The word “killer” actually exist in modern Russian, alongside the word “ubiytsa,” as a loan word—meaning a hardened, mob-connected contract hitman—also damaging, but not as bad as “murderer.”
The reaction of Russian officialdom to Biden’s ABC interview was swift and outspoken. Russian State Duma (lower chamber of parliament) Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin described the US president’s televised remarks as “unacceptable,” maligning not only Putin but the citizens of Russia and the entire nation. “No other US president ever slandered any Russian leaders in such a way, not even Joseph Stalin,” implied Volodin, adding “Nobody is allowed to talk like that about our head of state. This is hysteria that comes from impotence.” The secretary of the General Council of the ruling United Russia party, Andrey Turchak, and the official government daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta described Biden as “senile,” “muttering” and suffering from “dementia” (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, March 17). Former close aide to Putin and powerful Kremlin insider Vladislav Surkov cursed Biden in writing in English: “Old chap Joe is a mothafu**a” (Vzglyad, March 18).
Putin replied to the ABC interview with a well-known Russian saying: “He who calls others names is himself what he calls them” (“Kto obzivayetsa, tot sam tak nazivayetsa”). The Russian leader followed this up by listing the United States’ historical sins—slavery, the genocide of Native American populations, using nuclear weapons against Japan—which, he asserted, formed the “killer” (murderous) character of the US ruling class; so Biden could not help himself when resorting to slander. Putin wished Biden good health, apparently implying his lack of such because of old age (Interfax, March 18).
Vladimir Putin is known to have a thin skin and to hold extended grudges against people he perceives to have wronged him. The Biden/Stephanopoulos interview seems to have enraged the Kremlin leader; and the entire Russian ruling elite, including all Duma faction leaders, hurried to publicly demonstrate their solidarity with the Russian president by slandering Biden as much as possible (Interfax, March 18). Only Senator Konstantin Kosachev, who chairs the Federation Council (upper chamber of parliament) Foreign Affairs Committee, implied Washington still had a way to wiggle out of the escalating crisis: “Maybe Biden was too focused on his domestic agenda and, due to old age, did not fully understand what Stephanopoulos was asking.” Washington must find a way, according to Kosachev, to walk back the ABC interview and apologize because “if they do not, the consequences will be terrible.” The next step after the recalling of Ambassador Antonov may be the severing of diplomatic relations (Interfax, March 18).
Recalling an ambassador “for consultations” is unprecedented in Russo-US relations. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and United States several times stood on the verge of all-out war. US and Soviet soldiers skirmished and killed each other in proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East, though these encounters were not officially recognized as such at the time in order to avoid an all-out nuclear holocaust. But the military and intelligence communities on both sides knew well what was happening. Still, Washington’s and Moscow’s ambassadors were never recalled “for consultations” at any of those times since this would have signaled the first step in downgrading and possibly severing diplomatic relations. In today’s diplomatic etiquette, the severing of diplomatic relations is more or less equivalent to declaring war. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov described US-Russian relations after the Biden/Stephanopoulos interview as “very bad” and the interview itself as “unprecedented.” The US president, Peskov charged, “Definitely does not want to improve relations with our nation. In the future, we will act from that assumption” (Interfax, March 18).
Apparently, the Russian side believes only a full-hearted personal apology by the White House would suffice to somewhat undo the damage caused by the Biden/Stephanopoulos interview. But most likely, instead of that there will be more US sanctions and restrictions coming. Russia will be punished for allegedly interfering in the US 2020 elections and for its alleged cyber/hacker attacks. Punishment is also on the horizon for Moscow allegedly using the nerve agent “Novichok” to poison opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Tomsk in August 2020 and, before that, on March 4, 2018, to try to assassinate former double agent and military intelligence (GRU) Colonel Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England. Areas of possible cooperation, like in outer space, are contracting out of existence as export control regimes governing US high technology and components become more rigid in accordance with the US’s 1991 Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act. US-Russian space cooperation is now almost exclusively limited to the International Space Station (ISS), which is leaking air from the Russian section and may soon be either abandoned or broken up into separately floating national stations (Militarynews.ru, March 18).
As relations enter a freefall, the aggressiveness of buzz-by encounters and intercepts between US and Russian ships and jets may increase. Actual skirmishes may begin to occur on the high seas, in the air or in Syria between US and Russian militaries. The possibility of hot proxy wars will grow, in particularly in southern Ukraine, where the Kremlin may believe it must move to push back the US and its “proxies” away from northern Crimea and the Sea of Azov (see EDM, March 11). All that just because of a stray question, an “Mmm hmm” reply and a dubious translation.