The Kremlin was unquestionably furious about President Joe Biden’s Wednesday interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos. In contrast to former President Donald Trump’s outright refusal to condemn the Russian leader for any of his actions, when Biden was asked whether he thought Russian President Vladimir Putin was a “killer,” he succinctly replied, “Mmm-hmm, I do.”
On Thursday, Putin appeared rattled and irritated as he personally addressed Biden’s remarks during a video call with residents of Crimea marking the anniversary of its annexation from Ukraine by Russia in 2014.
Angrily glaring into the lens of the camera, Putin forced a smile and said of Biden, “I wish him good health.” The loaded response could be read as an implied threat, but it most likely refers to ongoing efforts by Kremlin-controlled state media to portray the American president as a hapless elder suffering from dementia.
To achieve this desired impression, Russian state media often airs clips of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson assailing the mental capabilities of the U.S. leader. The campaign to portray President Biden as mentally unfit started well before he was elected, and on that front—and on many others—Russian propaganda narratives seamlessly blended with those of Fox News.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Thursday that “there hasn’t been anything like this in history” and described the U.S. president’s statements as “very bad.”
On the same day the ABC interview aired, Russia recalled its U.S. ambassador, Anatoly Antonov, “for consultations” about relations with the United States. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that relations between Moscow and Washington “have been going through hard times,” blaming the U.S. for bringing them “to a dead end.”
Putin didn’t even bother denying Biden’s “killer” accusation during his Thursday appearance on Russian state TV. Instead, the Russian president retorted with a commentary that roughly translates to “It takes one to know one.”
In fact, there is little doubt that Putin bears responsibility for bloodshed abroad; in Ukraine, Georgia, and Syria, and against his own citizens living on foreign soil. Putin was accused of ordering the attempted assassination of his most vocal and effective domestic rival, Alexei Navalny, by a military-grade nerve agent Novichok last year. Putin’s government has also been linked to the 2018 poisoning of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in England, and the shooting of a former commander of Chechen separatists in Berlin in 2019. Notably, in 2006, Putin signed a law legalizing targeted killings of “extremists” abroad. This Wednesday, the U.S. imposed additional sanctions against Russia for using chemical weapons against dissidents.
Most Russian lawmakers, pundits, and state media experts didn’t even attempt to argue against Biden’s perception of President Putin as a “killer.” They merely recoiled at the unthinkable idea of openly criticizing Putin, which is not only a taboo in the Motherland, but dangerous. “You can think whatever you want, you just don’t say it out loud,” argued politician Sergey Stankevich, appearing on The Evening with Vladimir Soloviev.
Vladimir Soloviev, the host of the show, grimly surmised the meaning of the U.S. president’s statements: “This is a declaration of the New Cold War. Of course, we will respond—and we will respond very harshly.”
“He let it slip because he is an elderly person. Perhaps he doesn’t realize that the American president shouldn’t be saying these kinds of things out loud,” suggested Russian lawmaker Oleg Morozov. Karen Shakhnazarov, a prominent fixture of Russian state TV news talk shows, argued against propaganda tropes about Biden’s allegedly ailing mental health. “He is an experienced old wolf,” Shakhnazarov asserted, “He understands exactly what he’s saying… there should be a harsh response.”
“This is a scandalous statement,” asserted Konstantin Zatulin, member of Russia’s lower house of parliament, “We shouldn’t stand for it. At the very minimum, Biden should be ostracized from all relations.”
Russian state media pundits and experts, many of whom openly miss Biden’s predecessor, gushed about Trump finding the “correct words” when former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly asked him whether Putin is a killer. Instead of a straightforward answer, Trump responded to O’Reilly with another question, asking him, “You think our country is so innocent?”
The host of the Russian state TV show 60 Minutes, Evgeny Popov, reminisced about the former president referring to Vladimir Putin as “a great guy.” Popov bitterly marveled: “A surprising transformation, from “great guy” to “killer” in such a short time!”
With Biden at the helm, Russian lawmakers and talking heads appeared stumped as to the exact measures that could be taken against the United States. There was universal agreement that the response would be nonlinear, asymmetrical, and decidedly dirty. Pundits and experts proposed a variety of measures: from underhanded tactics to undermine U.S. vaccines, to impeding the functions of U.S. businessmen operating in Russia, to stopping cooperation in space and interfering in U.S. relations with Iran and China.
Appearing on Russia’s 60 Minutes, Alexei Timofeev, political commentator for state media outlet Sputnik, suggested “releasing the kompromat” against Biden. Timofeev argued that after Biden’s comments about Putin, the U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation John Sullivan “should have holes on the knees of his pants,” begging the Kremlin for forgiveness.
“Revenge is a dish best served cold,” threatened Igor Korotchenko, member of the Defense Ministry’s public advisory council. During his appearance on 60 Minutes, Korotchenko proposed radically ratcheting up the number of resident spies in the United States. He angrily asserted, “We need to grab them by the udders and obtain access to any information whenever we need it. That will be the best response.”
“They crossed the red line,” claimed Dmitry Abzalov, Director of the Center for Strategic Communications, on 60 Minutes. The host of the program, Evgeny Popov, ominously predicted, “The world will never be the same.”