Nadim Koteich

Why Did Putin Praise Biden?

Breaking with the rhetoric we are accustomed to hearing from him, Russian President Vladimir Putin surprisingly said that he prefers US President Joe Biden over former President Donald Trump. He said that his American counterpart is more predictable than Trump, and that Biden follows an old-school approach to international politics.
Of course, it would be easy to argue that Putin, through his endorsement of Biden, who is facing the toughest reelection battle in White House history, is planting a "kiss of death" on the US president’s forehead. Nothing could sow more doubts about Biden's campaign and distort it more than Putin giving the impression that he is the Kremlin's preferred candidate!
Given the historically contentious relationship between the United States and Russia, one could argue that Putin's statements were intended to sow division within the US. Indeed, Trump wasted no time in jumping on Putin's remarks to create skepticism around whether Biden was tough on Russia and to raise fears of unjustified Russian influence or that Russia had been working to ensure an electoral outcome that serves its objectives. Putin's comments could also be read as seeking to give the Biden administration a false sense of security and make it complacent, a push to get the administration to downplay the risks posed by Russia’s geopolitical intentions that grants Moscow greater room for maneuver, allowing it to pursue its interests without the US creating serious obstacles.
On the other hand, Putin's remarks could be read as a "backhanded compliment." Indeed, this world leader who is more keen on maintaining ambiguity in his behavior and speech, calling someone “predictable” and “old school” could, in fact, have been intended to slander and disparage the latter.
Such interpretations, which read heavily between the lines of political and diplomatic statements, and delve deep into the implicit intentions of the officials making them, are not very far-fetched as far as speculation of Putin's motives go. It seems, however, that this presidential battle is so acrimonious that statements from the Russian president have no bearing on the United States’ sharp divisions, and that they do nothing to shake the confidence of either candidate’s solid base. As for swing voters, Putin's preferences are the last thing that will sway them one way or the other.
If we could set questions of intentions to one side, the Russian president’s remarks praised the US president’s qualities. They highlight the complex considerations shaping Russian diplomacy and demand a deeper look at the background of Putin's strategic position regarding the upcoming US elections.
By expressing his preference for Biden, Putin probably sought to distance himself from suspicions of favoring Trump and pour cold water, for purely Russian reasons, on accusations of meddling in these US elections after they had been raised in both 2016 and 2020. By publicly distancing his country from US voter preferences and showing that he would accept whatever decision Americans make for themselves, he is calling on others, both within the Russian entity and beyond, to accept the decision Russians will make for themselves.
Putin also has a strategic interest in maintaining the facade of adhering to international norms and respecting state sovereignty, and he is pushing against his stereoptical depiction as the leader of a rogue state. He is aware that, in light of the Russian-Ukrainian war, he needs to recalibrate his country's image on the global stage and give it back its reputation as a rational, principled actor with strategic flexibility that engages in sensible diplomacy.
Moreover, by welcoming the election of an American president with whom he has had a poor and tense relationship, and saying that he prefers it to the election of another with whom he seemed to get along with, seeks to portray Russia as a confident global power that does not feel the ebbs and flows of US politics. He is also keen on dispelling the idea that he seeks the protection of any American president. Putin's statements are intended to present Russia as a balanced actor on the global stage that aligns itself purely on the basis of its national security interests.
In this sense, Putin is deliberately taking a posture aimed at presenting Russia as a player capable of dealing with any US administration; his statements may also be intended to suggest that Russia, like any other principled player on the international stage, is ready to build less volatile diplomatic ties with the US.
Furthermore, Putin crafted his comments with precision, ensuring that they resonated not only with the international community but also with his domestic audience.
These kinds of statements enhance his domestic image, reinforcing his image as a capable statesman adept at dealing with the complexities of international politics, one who seeks to safeguard Russia's sovereignty and boost its international standing. Putin has made a habit of offering assessments and evaluations of the American presidents he has encountered - a gimmick meant to enhance Russia’s standing and project Russian influence.
Putin, and the Russian public at large, certainly haven't forgotten that Biden had dubbed him a "killer." Thus, his praise of the US president also shines a light on his precise pragmatism, demonstrating a remarkable capacity for separating his personal sentiments from the strategic interests of his country and its people.
By praising Biden despite the insults he has directed at Putin, the latter aims to show that his country is confident, affirming that Russia is not easily moved or insulted by personal attacks. He is keen to show that Russia has the strength and flexibility needed to focus on strategic objectives and long-term interests rather than ephemeral political rhetoric.
Regardless of what Putin hoped to achieve by praising Biden, he reaffirmed that he profoundly understands the power of the media and building narrative. He thus constantly seeks to hone his skills in using propaganda to shape public opinion and bolster his regime's interests. With one sentence, he can preoccupy political analysts around the world and unsettle the globe’s most powerful officials, at a political moment in which we need clarity more than ever.