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Biden is the latest president to go off script on Russia

In this March 10, 2011 file photo, then-Vice President Joe Biden, left, shakes hands with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia.
Alexander Zemlianichenko
In this March 10, 2011 file photo, then-Vice President Joe Biden, left, shakes hands with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia.

The buzz went on for a week after President Biden whacked a hornets nest by telling a crowd of Poles that Russian President Vladimir Putin had to go.

"For God's sake, this man cannot remain in power," Biden said.

Those words were still hanging in the air when the White House began issuing clarifications and European allies started scrambling to distance themselves.

That's not the policy, White House aides said. Regime change in Moscow is not the goal in Ukraine, they said, nor is it the agreed-upon posture of NATO. And indeed it was not.

But that's familiar territory for Biden. Sometimes he just says what he thinks. And he's not the first U.S. president to do so — or to pay a price for it. When it comes to relations with Russia, you could say problematic presidential pronouncements have been a pattern for decades.

Talking about Russia was a major distraction in the presidential term of Donald Trump. Before that, communicating with Putin, or his stand-in Dmitry Medvedev, was at times awkward for Barack Obama.

Even George W. Bush, with all his preoccupation with other world conflicts, still managed to stir a Russia controversy. In 2001 he said he had looked Putin in the eye and found him "very straightforward and trustworthy," adding: "I was able to get a sense of his soul."

Ten years later, Biden would say he didn't think Putin even had a soul – and be taken to task for that utterance as well.

Whether these words were momentary outbursts, planned provocations or ill-advised asides, they have often roiled the relationship with Russia or provoked angry reaction in the U.S. At times, they have done both.

It was a pattern through the long night of the Cold War, which lasted four decades after World War II. And it has been a pattern since.

A potent alliance long since gone awry

The U.S. and Russia had been allies in World War II, if only because the two countries had a common enemy in Nazi Germany. When Hitler invaded Russia in 1941, the U.S. sent food and weapons to help the Russians resist.

Later that year, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. joined the war against all the Axis powers. Americans were then encouraged to think of the Russians as plucky and indomitable partners in the global struggle against fascism.

A poster for <em>Mission To Moscow.</em>
/ LMPC via Getty Images
LMPC via Getty Images
A poster for Mission To Moscow.

Hollywood was recruited to aid in this attitudinal shift. One film in particular, Mission to Moscow, portrayed Franklin Roosevelt's ambassador to Russia, Joseph E. Davies, as a forceful visionary. It also depicted Soviet leaders sympathetically. Even the totalitarian dictator Joseph Stalin appeared on screen as a pipe-smoking "Uncle Joe" – full of concern for his countrymen. (The film was a lot to swallow in 1943, and it rarely appears now without drawing gasps and laughs.)

When the war ended, Stalin and the Soviets continued to occupy or dominate the countries of Eastern and Central Europe they had seized from the Nazis. The U.S. and its allies in Western Europe tacitly accepted this reality, which would remain a thorny topic for every president from Harry Truman onward.

As late as 1976, when debating his Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter, President Gerald Ford told a national TV audience he did not think the Poles felt dominated by the Soviets who had been occupying the country for 30 years.

Ford knew what he meant by that remark, but many in the audience and the media did not. Portrayed as a gaffe, the statement dominated much of the debate coverage. Some believed it slowed Ford's comeback at a crucial moment and contributed to his narrow loss to Carter.

From 'evil empire' to a ray of hope

Toward the end of the Cold War, President Ronald Reagan had referred to the Soviet Union as "an evil empire," drawing a rebuke from the Kremlin and from many in the U.S. as well.

Some critics found it unhelpful to cast the superpower rivalry in such morally simplistic terms. Others found the language bracing and inspirational.

But it was not, for the moment, a path toward a more positive relationship.

Then there was that unguarded moment in 1984 when Reagan was recording one of his Saturday radio addresses. Knowing the broadcast was not live, the president joked about having just signed into law legislation to "outlaw the Soviet Union forever." "We begin bombing in five minutes," he said. While not broadcast live, the joke was recorded and later leaked and widely heard.

Soviet officials protested at the time, but there were few serious consequences. That may have been because they were already consumed with the internal battles that would in fact soon bring the Soviet era to a close.

Back in the U.S., Reagan's idea of a joke left many unamused. Some saw it as an indication of Reagan's mental decline. But it did not slow Reagan's reelection momentum: He carried 49 states that fall. And within a few years, the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, was effecting far-reaching reforms in his home country and redefining its role in the world. He even negotiated a nuclear disarmament treaty with Reagan.

By the end of his second term, Reagan could stand near the ultimate symbol of the Cold War in the city of Berlin and say "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." And soon thereafter, while George H.W. Bush was in office, the citizens of Berlin finally brought that wall crashing down.

An enemy, a rival or something else?

After the Cold War ended, the relationship with Russia entered a far more ambiguous phase. Was the post-Soviet Russia an enemy, or merely a rival? Was its new government a democracy, or had it become an autocracy by another name?

And should the U.S. maintain an attitude of implacable hostility to a country that was no longer devoted to its Communist ideology — or might there be another way to co-exist with the second largest nuclear arsenal on the planet?

Bill Clinton, fortunate in his timing in office, benefited from the Soviet collapse and the resulting "peace dividend" — a lessening of global tension and the burdens of the arms race.

Yet Clinton had his share of awkward moments dealing with Boris Yeltsin, the one Russian leader ever elected in truly free, multi-party elections. Yeltsin was a colorful but erratic figure who emerged in the sudden bloom of political and media freedom Russia experienced in the early 1990s.

He and Clinton hit it off and maintained a remarkable rapport well into the decade. But as a war in the Balkans intensified that year, the two found themselves on opposite sides. The NATO bombing of Serbia in that conflict inflamed an anti-Western swing in Russian popular opinion, and may have contributed to Yeltsin's choice of a successor. That choice, made to appeal to the rising nationalist sentiment, was Vladimir Putin.

A 'hot mic' moment

For more than 20 years now, the challenge of Russia has been the problem of Putin. He could position himself as a kind of ally in the years of the War on Terror, as American fears after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 had a parallel in Putin's animus toward Muslims in the breakaway province of Chechnya.

Putin stepped aside for his selected successor, Medvedev, in 2008, but the move was soon understood to be temporary. When Medvedev met with Obama in March 2012 at a conference part of their conversation was overheard on a "hot mic." Obama said he would "have more flexibility" after that year's U.S. election. Medvedev replied that he would "transmit this information to Vladimir."

Putin reclaimed the presidency just two months later and has since arranged to make himself de facto president for life. While often at odds with Obama, Putin was even more implacably opposed to the idea of Hillary Clinton as president — given her history of denouncing Russian policy in general and Putin in particular.

That led to some of Putin's allies in and outside the government staging a prolonged campaign of interference in the 2016 presidential election in the U.S. – a campaign documented in the 2019 report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the 2020 report of the U.S. Senate Committee on Intelligence.

Neither Mueller nor the Senate committee charged Trump with direct involvement with the Russians in this regard, as he has long maintained in his denials of any "collusion" with Russia.

But if Biden has seemed unable to resist denouncing Putin, Trump at times seemed bent on courting him — and prompting ferocious pushback from opponents in Congress. Trump himself sometimes described Democrats' response to his first two years in office as "Russia, Russia, Russia."

Much of that stemmed from the Mueller probe, but the theme was still alive in Trump's first impeachment. That process, which dominated much of the year 2019 in Washington, stemmed from a phone call to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy in which Trump urged the Ukrainians to investigate "the Bidens." (A reference to then-candidate Biden and his son Hunter.)

A salient feature of Trump's presidency was his penchant for praising Putin. The two had encountered each other in the world of business, as Trump located a beauty pageant in Moscow and negotiated for a Trump-branded hotel there. In the 2016 campaign year, Trump famously urged Russia to hack into U.S. computers and find Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton's missing emails. Trump said he wasn't serious.

When U.S. intelligence reported that Russia had been interfering with the 2016 election (hacking Democratic campaign communications and flooding social media with phony messages), Trump said Putin denied it and he accepted the Russian's word on it. "I don't see why it would be Russia," he said, standing next to Putin at a news conference in Helsinki in 2018. "I can tell you President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today."

And even now, in his post-presidency, Trump keeps the Russia connection in the news by asking Putin to "release" information he might have about a payment the wife of the mayor of Moscow allegedly made to Hunter Biden.

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Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for