President Joe Biden might well have cause to take Russian President Vladimir Putin’s international antics personally.
Not only did the veteran autocrat tilt toward former President Donald Trump in two U.S. elections, but operatives in Putin's sphere of influence reportedly fed Trump allies undocumented corruption claims against the former U.S. vice president and his kin.
Key details of these collaborations have yet to be fully exposed. But the more relevant question is what payback and consequence the U.S. deems appropriate, and what risks the Biden administration runs in taking tough stances with Russia in months and years ahead.
This week, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in a new report that Putin authorized "influence operations aimed at denigrating President Biden's candidacy and the Democratic Party, supporting Trump, undermining public confidence in the electoral process and exacerbating sociopolitical divisions in the U.S."
The most personal part had surfaced earlier when Trump and his then-lawyer Rudy Giuliani met with Putin backers in Ukraine to construct and peddle a corruption narrative about Biden's son Hunter; Hunter's former employer, a Kyiv gas company; and Biden's office during the Barack Obama administration.
Giuliani's insinuations about laptops and emails, assisted by his contacts in Eastern Europe, never affected last fall's presidential campaign.
Also this week, Biden told a curious story to ABC News about an interaction with Putin. He said that, some years ago, he was alone with Putin in his office and alluded to an earlier instance in which ex-President George W. Bush said of Putin: "I was able to get a sense of his soul."
Biden suggested that during his own meeting with Putin, he spoofed that remark — by saying, "I looked in your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul." Biden said Putin "looked back and said, ‘We understand each other.’ "
At least one other Biden recollection about a foreign encounter turned out to be malarkey.
Last year, in a forgotten gaffe from his early primary campaign, Biden said he was arrested while trying to see Nelson Mandela in prison during the South African apartheid. The story was flatly contested by others in a position to know, such as former UN Ambassador Andrew Young.
Whatever the provenance of Biden's "soul" tale, the hostile personal message is clear. Biden repudiated Trump's refusal to call Putin a "killer" as ex-Fox commentator Bill O'Reilly described him.
Perhaps Biden is simply removing the cozy frame through which his predecessor and Putin saw each other. Perhaps there are substantial policy shifts that might risk an escalation of the hostilities that — for all the cordiality of the men at the top — lingered through the Trump years.
Putin has responded with the expected frigidity. In part, he said that while growing up, he and his friends would respond to insults with a rhyme saying, " ‘The names you call is what you are yourself.’ "
"It's not just a rhymed childish joke, it has a deep psychological meaning: We see our own qualities in another man, we think he's like us and judge him accordingly," Putin said — sounding pretty personal himself.