Analysis | Biden puts Putin on the couch over Ukraine – The Washington Post

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The big idea

Biden tackles the ‘what does he want?’ question about Putin

“Butcher.” War criminal. “Cannot stay in power.” Genocide. When President Biden makes news for what he says about Russian President Vladimir Putin, it’s usually for that kind of unvarnished, unsubtle assessment of the former KGB officer waging war on Ukraine.

But as the conflict enters its third month, with a fresh flurry of “what does Putin want, and what price is he prepared to pay to get it” questions, there’s a second kind of Biden commentary about the decision-maker in the Kremlin that doesn’t grab headlines but deserves another look.

In a previous column, I suggested Biden sometimes effectively delivers an intelligence-style “profile” of Putin in public, measuring his motivations and the principles and pressures that shape his policies. All of it in front of reporters with a potential audience of billions.

Leaders like to take the measure of allies and rivals on the world stage, which is one of the reasons big in-person multilateral summits — derided by more than one White House I covered as “small talk in big rooms” — survive.

For example: Former president George W. Bush’s “Decisions Points” memoir had few more intriguing moments for me than when he revealed on page 427 that he liked to ask his foreign counterparts “what keeps you up at night?” (I would read an entire book listing all of the various answers, but the only one he shares is from China’s Hu Jintao.)

‘Calculating man’

But back to Biden. On Monday, at a Democratic National Committee even outside Washington, the president shared this brief but interesting observation about Putin.

  • “He is a very, very, very calculating man. And the problem I worry about now is that he doesn’t have a way out right now, and I’m trying to figure out what we do about that,” Biden said.

A day later, White House press secretary Jen Psaki confirmed “doesn’t have a way out” referred to Ukraine, where unexpectedly robust resistance has dealt major battlefield losses to a Russian force that had been predicted to take Kyiv within days.

“What the president’s point was is that we have to be clear-eyed about the impact that has on a dictator that has invaded another country, a sovereign country, that it hasn’t gone as he thought it would go,” she told reporters. (Psaki did not return an email seeking more details.)

On April 28, at the White House, Biden criticized recent remarks by senior Russian officials that amounted to nuclear saber-rattling, as well as claims NATO is fighting a “proxy war” in Ukraine, saying Moscow was trying to excuse its surprising military failures.

And he said this: “They do concern me because it shows the desperation that Russia is feeling about their abject failure in being able to do what they set out to do.”

‘Between China and the West’

Now, caveat lector, of course. This is what Biden tells a roomful of reporters while the television cameras broadcast his words live to the world, so you have to apply a kind of candor discount. How much does this fully and accurately reflect what he thinks about Putin?

One of Biden’s most interesting riffs of this type came at a news conference in January, a little more than a month before Putin expanded his invasion of Ukraine by hurling tens of thousands of Russian troops over the border.

Biden saying “my guess is he will move in. He has to do something” grabbed most of the Ukraine-watchers’ attention. But the way the president couched Putin’s domestic political reality on the way to reaching that conclusion was fascinating, even if he wasn’t exactly spilling state secrets.

  • “How can I say this in a public forum?” Biden began. “He has eight time zones, a burning tundra that will not freeze again naturally, a situation where he has a lot of oil and gas, but he is trying to find his place in the world between China and the West.

“I think that he is dealing with what I believe he thinks is the most tragic thing that’s happened to Mother Russia — in that the Berlin Wall came down, the Empire has been lost, the Near Abroad is gone, et cetera. The Soviet Union has been split,” Biden said of Putin. The Russian president is well known to regard the breakup of the U.S.S.R. as a calamity and the ensuing reduction of Moscow’s influence in countries around Russia — the “Near Abroad” — as dangerous.

So he invaded Ukraine.

What’s happening now

Biden orders U.S. flags at half-staff to mark 1 million U.S. coronavirus deaths

“Biden also nudged Congress to pass a stalled $10 billion package that would boost the availability of tests, therapeutics and vaccines nationwide. According to a Washington Post tracker, the 1 million milestone will be reached this week,” John Wagner and Mariana Alfaro report for Post Politics Now.

Meatpackers hyped ‘baseless’ shortage to keep plants open despite covid risks: report

“In a report released Thursday, the committee alleges that Tyson Foods’s legal team prepared a draft with input from other companies that became the basis for an executive order to keep the plants open the Trump administration issued in April 2020, making it difficult for workers to stay home,” Taylor Telford reports.

Senator to introduce bill giving Big Tech its own federal watchdog

“Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) today will introduce the Digital Platform Commission Act, a bill to establish a new five-person commission responsible for protecting consumers in the age of Big Tech. According to proposed text viewed exclusively by The Washington Post, the agency would have the power to interrogate the algorithms powering major tech platforms, and to set new rules to ensure the biggest companies are transparent about how they handle thorny decisions around content moderation on their platforms,” Cat Zakrzewski reports.

Justices to meet for 1st time since leak of draft Roe ruling

“The meeting Thursday in the justices’ private, wood-paneled conference room could be a tense affair in a setting noted for its decorum. No one aside from the justices attends and the most junior among them, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, is responsible for taking notes,” the Associated Press‘s Mark Sherman and Jessica Gresko report

Sussmann trial to test credibility of controversial figures from 2016

“After five years of accusations, investigations and recriminations, a federal jury will soon grapple with one of the legal hangovers of the 2016 presidential campaign: the trial of a politically connected lawyer charged with lying when he brought the FBI a tip about possible connections between Donald Trump’s company and a Russian bank,” Devlin Barrett reports.

The war in Ukraine

Russia says Finland’s NATO plan ‘definitely’ a threat

“Finland’s leaders announced Thursday that they would seek NATO membership for the Nordic nation in response to Russia’s war on Ukraine, which would be a tectonic shift in the military alliance and Europe’s security order. The Kremlin said Finland’s accession would ‘definitely’ pose a threat to Russia’s security and warned against a NATO expansion near its border,” Ellen Francis, Amy Cheng, Annabelle Timsit, Jaclyn Peiser, Rachel Pannett and Andrew Jeong report.

More key updates:

Follow our live coverage of the war here

Lunchtime reads from The Post

We the Users

We the users want technology to work for us. Here are our demands.

Columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler is investigating how technology fails us — and ideas to make things better. What belongs on the list?

“I’m taking a step back, and talking with people who think deeply about how to protect our interests. It’s just a start, but the outlines of what we — we, the consumers, citizens, parents, workers, patients, friends, voters, creators and more — should demand are beginning to emerge,” he writes.

We the users want privacy, because it’s fundamental to being free. We the users want affordable Internet access, because participation in our digital society is a civil right. We the users want choice, so our future isn’t locked into a handful of mega-companies. We the users want transparency, so we can understand how technology is shaping our lives — and correct course when it goes off the rails.”

I gave Instagram photos of my baby. Instagram returned fear.

“When my son was born last year, friends from all over wanted to share in my joy. So I decided to post a photo of him every day on Instagram. Within weeks, Instagram began showing images of babies with severe and uncommon health conditions, preying on my new-parent vulnerability to the suffering of children. My baby album was becoming a nightmare machine,” Geoffrey writes.

“This was not a bug, I have learned. This is how the software driving Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, YouTube and lots of other apps has been designed to work. Their algorithms optimize for eliciting a reaction from us, ignoring the fact that often the shortest path to a click is fear, anger or sadness.”

… and beyond

Report catalogs abuse of Native American children at former government school

“An initial investigation commissioned by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland cataloged some of the brutal conditions that Native American children endured at more than 400 boarding schools that the federal government forced them to attend between 1819 and 1969. The inquiry was an initial step, Ms. Haaland said, toward addressing the ‘intergenerational trauma’ that the policy left behind,” the New York Times’s Mark Walker reports.

“An Interior Department report released on Wednesday highlighted the abuse of many of the children at the government-run schools, with instances of beatings, withholding of food and solitary confinement. It also identified burial sites at more than 50 of the former schools, and said that ‘approximately 19 federal Indian boarding schools accounted for over 500 American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian child deaths.’ The number of recorded deaths is expected to grow, the report said.”

The Biden agenda

Biden to host rescheduled summit with Southeast Asian leaders

“The announcement from the White House Saturday said the gathering with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will ‘build on’ the October 2021 summit with the 10 countries. It was at last year’s meeting where Biden announced $102 million in initiatives focused on the region targeting Covid-19 recovery, the climate crisis, economic growth and gender equality,” Politico‘s Brianna Crummy reports.

Biden-hosted Americas summit facing boycott over invitation list

“In a potential embarrassment for his administration, a growing number of hemispheric leaders have said they will not attend an Americas summit, to be hosted by President Biden next month in Los Angeles, if the meeting excludes Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua,” Karen DeYoung reports.

Biden pulls 3 offshore oil lease sales, curbing new drilling this year

“The Interior Department confirmed Wednesday that it will not hold three oil and gas lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Alaska that had been scheduled to take place, taking millions of acres off the auction block,” Anna Phillips reports.

Feud between Biden and Rick Scott turns personal

“In recent weeks, Biden and a panoply of White House officials have systematically elevated the first-term senator from Florida as a central GOP boogeyman, seizing on his 11-point conservative policy platform that the top Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, has explicitly rejected — in part because he feared Democrats would target it exactly as they are doing,” Seung Min Kim reports.

Biden’s personal recovery plan: Pump up unions, squeeze Big Business

“Joe Biden has long identified as a proud union man, having cultivated relationships with top labor leaders over decades in Washington. Now, with his presidency facing intense peril, Biden is hoping those bonds and that image can lift his fortunes in time for the midterms,” Politico‘s Christopher Cadelago reports.

Facing pushback, Biden administration clarifies charter school rules

“In a series of tweets, the Education Department said it supports high-quality charter schools and tried to clarify some of its proposed priorities for a grant program that covers start-up costs,” Laura Meckler reports.

Texas disaster planning, visualized

Texas steered federal grants toward Whiter, wealthier areas, a HUD investigation found. Hurricane Harvey devastated southeast Texas in 2017, prompting HUD to allocate billions of dollars to the state to mitigate future storm risks. Because the funds were split in half, between HUD- and Texas-designated areas, areas with more people of color received disproportionately less funding.

Hot on the left

Senate Democrats’ imaginary majority

“Every day, it seems, brings another reminder of the severe limitations of Democrats’ illusory majority in a 50-50 Senate,” Politico‘s Burgess Everett reports.

Now nearly 16 months and running, it’s by far the longest 50-50 Senate in history. And Democrats have had great success confirming President Joe Biden’s nominees, punctuated this week by installing a new FTC commissioner who gave Democrats the majority and the first Black woman on the Federal Reserve Board. But on a day-to-day basis, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s job is an excruciating grind based on whether any of his members have Covid, if Republicans are feeling cooperative and where a handful of Democrats stand.”

Hot on the right

How the ‘most conservative governor in North Carolina history’ became a RINO

“Former Gov. Pat McCrory served on the frontline of the culture wars in 2016 when he signed North Carolina’s controversial ‘bathroom bill,’ which curbed protections for transgender people. When he was defeated for reelection later that year by a razor-thin margin, he raised questions about the voting process and didn’t concede until nearly a month after the election,” Politico‘s Natalie Allison reports.

“Those experiences would seem to make McCrory an ideal nominee in a post-Trump GOP animated by claims of election fraud and the politics of transgender rights. Instead, in the run-up to North Carolina’s Tuesday primary, he’s dropping in polls and being dismissed by MAGA faithful as a liberal RINO.”

Today in Washington

At 5:30 p.m., Biden will welcome ASEAN leaders to the White House, where they will take a family photo.

Biden will host the ASEAN leaders for dinner at 6 p.m.

In closing

Fallon on Biden’s trip to Illinois

Thanks for reading. See you tomorrow.

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