Russia's President Vladimir Putin meets with graduates of the Management Personnel Pool programme of the Graduate School of Public Administration at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA), via a video linkup from the Moscow Kremlin on June 17, 2021.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin meets with graduates of the Management Personnel Pool programme of the Graduate School of Public Administration at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA), via a video linkup from the Moscow Kremlin on June 17, 2021. Alexei Nikolsky\TASS via Getty Images

Putin Suddenly Looks Very Small

With Trump out of office, the Russian leader has nobody else. Biden has NATO, the G-7, and the upper hand.

Vladimir Putin has never looked smaller. 

When the big moment in Geneva finally came, the Russian leader faced the cameras after his shorter-than-expected private meetings with President Joe Biden, and the often-shirtless Russian bear looked and sounded, well, weak. The legendary master of hours-long press appearances before packed houses of fawning Moscow apparatchiks instead played to a half-empty room of COVID-distanced reporters in Switzerland. He spoke with the soft tones and empty tropes of a fading autocrat defiant at the walls of reality closing in around him. His schtick was boring, his message tired, and his talking points worn out. 

Geneva wasn’t the disinformation victory Biden’s opponents feared it would be. It was a rerun of a million Putin appearances we’ve seen before. The only man Putin made look feeble was himself. His speech was rambling, off-topic, and filled with confusing and nonsensical misdirections and blatant lies. He looked thoroughly disconnected from his own myth. The cunning power once attributed to him seemed tiny compared to how actual power is measured. He was a man standing alone. In other words, Putin looked positively Trumpian. 

It’s no coincidence that Putin has but one prominent supporter in the West: private citizen Donald Trump, which means very little, now. But Putin has nobody standing behind him, outside his oligarchy. Other opportunistic dictators of the world may take advantage of Russian protection, but that’s not friendship, nor a guarantee. That’s just business. 

Biden, on the other hand, arrived in Geneva with the full-throated support of two institutional forces Putin will never enjoy: the economic might and prosperity of the unified G-7, and the nuclear-might and Article V commitment of the 30-nation NATO treaty alliance, reaffirmed on Monday. NATO leaders this week voiced their support not just for the United States; with relief, they specifically welcomed Biden, the man, as a sign of stability, competence, and strength—all things that Trump clearly was not. And many said so, publicly. 

That’s not to say Biden did anything spectacular or abnormally statesmanlike. But in sharp contrast to his predecessor in Helsinki, he performed in Geneva as one would expect from any competent president. He looked and sounded the part and demonstrated that foreign policy is his second language. He also looked and sounded elderly, but only because he is. So what? Trump knew nothing about global security or foreign policy, and it showed throughout his four-year term as adversaries like Putin played him and allies disrespected him on these stages. 

Biden’s team did their best to lower expectations for the Putin meeting, and succeeded. There are but a few positive outcomes, like a commitment to resuming U.S.-Russian strategic arms talks, a list of cyber don'ts, and cooperating on the environment. But there were fewer substantial agreements, by design. This was a choreographed, made-for-TV session for the United States, through Biden, to put Putin on notice that things have changed. And Putin fell for it (unlike the Chinese). 

As the leaders described it, the meeting was quite “cordial,” Biden said, and apparently so boring that they ended it hours earlier than expected. It was not hostile, Putin said. “On the contrary, our meeting took place in a constructive spirit,” he cooed. 

Of course, Putin lied through his teeth, twisting truths and trying to turn tables. In his press conference, played coy but really was on his heels and flailing on topics including jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny; Putin’s involvement in political assassinations; America’s own politically-driven wrongs like police brutality, civilian casualties in Afghanistan, Guantanamo prisoners, and CIA black sites. 

“Who stands accused of what? Who’s the killer?” he asked. “Look at the American streets. People are getting killed there, including those who are leading the various political organizations.” When an ABC News reporter asked why he was so afraid of political opposition, Putin invoked the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. “We have seen looting and violations and riots. We sympathize with the Americans, but we do not want for the same thing to happen on Russian soil, and we’ll do anything possible to prevent this.”

Putin also falsely claimed Russia’s military only holds exercises within its borders (referring to Ukraine), noting that the United States deploys troops to exercise on Russia’s border. (In fact, in June 2020, Russian bombers flew eight miles outside of U.S. airspace. In September, Russian fighters flew into NATO airspace. And Estonia said Russian aircraft flew into their airspace on Tuesday, one day after Estonia’s leaders were at the NATO Summit, in Brussels.) And he called concerns about Russian Arctic militarization “baseless,” saying wryly, “we should collaborate on this.”

It was theater of the absurd. 

By the time Biden hit the sunlit outdoor stage of his crowded press conference, the bar for success was even lower, but the president was cool and calculated, mostly. The alleged Biden gaffe of the day actually happened after the press conference. As Biden walked off stage, an American reporter shouted a cheeky question at him, saying, “Why are you so confident he’ll change his behavior, Mr. President?” Biden snapped around on heel and with finger waving, said, “Where the hell…Why do you do this all the time? When did I say I was confident?” Biden dressed down the reporter for misrepresenting his extensive statements this week about what he expected from Putin. “If you don’t understand that, you’re in the wrong business.” Biden later apologized to the reporter before they boarded Air Force One for home, but the president’s exasperated reaction was understandable. 

Biden had started his press conference by yawning back at the excited coverage of the historic day. “I know there was a lot of hype around this meeting, but it’s pretty straightforward to me,” he began. Where the United States and Russia can cooperate, they will, and, he said, “Where we have differences, I wanted President Putin to understand why I say what I say, and why I do what I do, and how we’ll respond to specific kinds of actions that harm America’s interest.” 

As he did earlier at NATO and the G-7, Biden repeatedly said or implied that he’ll be tougher on Putin and Russia than was Trump, and a better champion for American values. 

“I also told him that no president of the United States could keep faith with the American people if they did not speak out to defend our democratic values, to stand up for the universal and fundamental freedoms that all men and women have, in our view,” Biden said. “How could I be the president of the United States of America and not speak out against the violation of human rights?” 

Biden said he hoped he made clear during his week abroad, first, that America was standing lockstep with NATO, and secondly, that “now we’ve established a clear basis on how we intend to deal with Russia and the U.S.-Russia relationship. There’s much more work ahead.” 

What happens to Putin next depends on two things: whether he continues cyberattacks on Western targets and what more the U.S. allies will do about it. But there’s no sign of perestroika coming. No glasnost. No Gorbachev. Just further isolation and economic restriction for Russia. 

Indeed, Putin was being forgotten before the American event left the scene. The real moment of the day was Biden’s clapback in the middle of his press conference, when another reporter asked about a different U.S. adversary, China’s President Xi Jinping, and said, “So is there going to become a time where you might call him, old friend to old friend, and ask him to open up China to the World Health Organization investigators...?”

“Let’s get something straight,” said Biden, interrupting the reporter’s playful snark. “We know each other well. We’re not old friends. It’s just pure business.”