Putin’s Talk Therapy

Photo by Alexei Nikolsky via Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
December 31, 2021

When I first heard, on Wednesday afternoon, that there was going to be a last-minute phone call between the Kremlin and the White House, at Vladimir Putin’s request, I immediately imagined the worst: Putin was calling, I thought, to give Biden a formal heads-up that Russia was going to invade Ukraine after all. The news caught me as I was shopping at Target, and I stopped in my tracks, in the middle of the shampoo aisle, picturing a split screen, with Biden on the phone on one side, and, on the other, Russian troops pouring over the border. I quickly texted some of my sources in the U.S. and in allied governments, and asked: Is this it? A New Year’s invasion?

They assured me that it was not. Even though they weren’t quite sure why Putin had asked for this call, they didn’t think it was to give the American president a fifteen-minute warning. That was comforting, though, with Putin, who knows. I didn’t think he’d invade Crimea or eastern Ukraine in 2014, either.

In the end, thankfully, my sources were right. The call, which Russian state TV billed as a very important meeting, ended up being not much of anything. According to a senior administration official who briefed reporters after the 50-minute call ended, this was “part of a series of end-of-the-year calls that President Putin has been engaged in.” It is, after all, the Russian custom to reach out to business partners and clients and wish them a happy new year, and, for the last two weeks of the year, the streets of Moscow are always clogged with couriers ferrying corporate gifts across the city. To wish his fellow presidents a happy new year, Putin called—well, whom didn’t he call? He called the leaders of most former Soviet republics (except for Georgia, Ukraine, and the Baltics); Mahmoud Abbas; Jair Bolsonaro; the presidents of Argentina and Vietnam; Xi Jinping; the pope; Queen Elizabeth; and yes, Joe Biden. But unlike with the 70 other leaders he called, Putin’s chat with Biden was not as chummy. “This was not some mere pleasantries,” said the senior administration official. “This was a serious, substantive conversation.”