Notes on Biden and Putin’s Awkward First Date

Julia Ioffe
July 16, 2021

Well, that was quite a day. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin finally met in Geneva. Then each president gave a press conference. Then I spent all day being a disembodied head on television and talking to sources in Moscow, Washington, and Geneva. I will have a more robust and reported analysis for you tomorrow, but for now, here are four things that stood out to me.

1. Meh!

For all the hoopla that the American media created around this summit, there was very little that came out of it—as representatives of both sides warned us ahead of time. Biden and Putin seem to have agreed on only three things: to reinstate their ambassadors to their respective posts in Moscow and Washington; to not go to nuclear war against each other; and to disagree on pretty much everything else. Biden brought up human rights and imprisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny, and Putin said, in essence, but what about the January 6 rioters? Biden brought up cybercrime attributed to Russian hackers, Putin pulled a Shaggy: wasn’t me.

The two men agreed to keep talking even if they kept disagreeing. Little was going to happen at this summit, and little did. To quote the viciously pro-Putin editor-in-chief of Russia Today, the Kremlin’s foreign-language channel, “Results of the Geneva summit: they flew in, they flew out.”

2. Kaitlan Collins

That didn’t stop the media from covering this meeting obsessively, even before the men had a chance to meet. When they did, journalists and commentators analyzed Biden’s and Putin’s handshake, their body language, the fact that Biden gifted Putin a pair of aviator sunglasses.

As usual, there is no worse offender than cable news. Channels like CNN and MSNBC—I admit I don’t watch Fox News—have many, many hours to fill between the ads and they’re desperate to retain the viewers they gained during the round-the-clock circus of the Trump era, back when every day contained a multitude of news cycles. It was easy to make the news entertaining and addictive when the entertainer-in-chief was generating so much of it. In the old days, CNN was infamous for covering plane crashes. The Trump era showed that people like trainwrecks even more. But Biden, once a flamboyant and chaotic candidate, has made quiet predictability the hallmark of his presidency. Unfortunately, that makes for pretty boring TV.

And so we have to talk about handshakes and what Biden and Putin talked about when, in fact, we don’t really know what they talked about, and I have to go on television and realize I that don’t have much to say beyond the obvious: Moscow and Washington have very little on which they can cooperate and that this won’t change pending some extraordinary event, like Putin’s death.

And so a standout moment of the day was a meta interaction: CNN’s Chief White House Correspondent Kaitlan Collins shouted a question to President Biden after he had adjourned his press conference—“Why are you so confident he’ll change his behavior, Mr. President?”—and Biden got ticked off at her. “Why do you do this all the time?” Biden shot back, jabbing an index finger in the air and coming back to confront her. “When did I say I was confident?” He yelled at her for a bit, then later, while talking to a scrum of reporters on the tarmac in front of Air Force One, apologized for being “a smart ass.”

What a made-for-TV moment! What great content! Within minutes, Kaitlan was trending on Twitter and CNN kept returning to the story—as did conservatives who felt that, had Trump done something like that, he would’ve been taken to task for his sexism. (Back in the Trump era, Trump loved to beat up on CNN and its correspondent Jim Acosta, who in turn gobbled up the attention and used it to make themselves seem like the martyred defenders of truth with a capital T.) Kaitlan is an excellent reporter, and when your medium is round-the-clock television, part of what makes you good is knowing how to make news, how to create newsworthy moments that can be played over and over and over again. (Remember, for instance, how Kaitlan asked the 78-year-old Biden if he’s going to run for reelection? Check out the CNN headline here.) If the president is no longer making all that much news—or news that’s exciting, dramatic, and confrontational—make the news yourself. Or make whatever meh event is happening into a much bigger deal than it really is.

3. “There is no happiness in life”

“There is no happiness in life,” Putin uttered when asked if he and Biden had come to trust each other. “There is only the mirage of it on the horizon. Cherish it.”

American observers instantly pounced on the comment as a hilarious window into the darkness of the Russian soul. But I think this was actually something else and that it was not intended for an American audience. Putin rose from a Leningrad street urchin to become the president of a nuclear power, and his salty speech often reflects his hard-knock origins. He has talked about smoking terrorists “in the outhouse,” about stringing people up by the balls, about wiping snot all over one’s face. For this, he has always been the subject of derision from the Russian intelligentsia. Putin pretends not to care about them, but he nevertheless began peppering his public remarks with quotes from literature, to show that he, too, is a civilized citizen of a country that produced such great authors—and where children are forced to memorize endless passages of their writing. He has quoted the BibleGoethe, Tolstoy, and Kipling. (He has also used fake quotes from Madeline Albright and Adolf Hitler.) The point is to sound more cultured than he really is, to create a mirage of erudition on the horizon.

And this is what Putin did here. He cited some line he attributed to Tolstoy, which, some people have pointed out, is from an obscure book about Russian writer Ivan Bunin. He did it to sound smarter than his Russian audience but the move backfired because American ears just heard something comically dour. Also, the word in Russian is zarnitsa, which means not “mirage,” but “heat lightning,” that glimmer of lighting off in the distance that is so far away that the accompanying sound of thunder dissipates before it reaches your ear on a hot summer night. Putin was clearly trying for a poetic image—he and Biden might not trust each other just yet, but a glimmer of trust had appeared somewhere on the horizon—but the meaning of it dissipated before Americans could understand what he was trying to say.

4. A Conscious Return?

During his press conference, Putin was asked about Navalny, whose name he still refuses to say. Putin then explained why he felt this “citizen” was now in jail: this citizen was on probation for two (politcally motivated, trumped-up) criminal convictions and was therefore obligated to check in with his parole officer on a regular basis. But then, “ignoring this requirement of the law,” Putin said, “this gentleman consciously—and I want to emphasize this—left the country for medical treatment.”

Of all the many insane things Putin has said about this “gentleman,” this ranked up there with the worst of them. Just remember under what circumstances Navalny left Russia on August 21, 2020: he was in a coma after being poisoned with Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent, and would remain in a coma for over two weeks. His wife, Yulia, posted a photo of Navalny leaving the country “consciously,” in case the Russian president had forgotten what that looked like.

If Putin has never had any shame, he’s never lacked for nerve.