Biden used language reminiscent of the Cold War to describe Putin at the DNC
A White House official said Biden's description didn't reflect an official administration stance
Vice President Joe Biden ratcheted up US rhetoric on Moscow Wednesday night, for the first time calling Russian President Vladimir Putin a ‘dictator.’
The undiplomatic description comes as American authorities finger his government for a hacking incident allegedly seeking to influence the US presidential elections in yet another intensification of tensions between the historic adversaries.
In his speech Wednesday night at the Democratic National Convention, Biden used language reminiscent of the Cold War to describe Putin in arguing that GOP nominee Donald Trump is unsuited to be president.
“We cannot elect a man who belittles our closest allies while embracing dictators like Vladimir Putin,” said Biden, “a man who confuses bluster with strength. We simply cannot let that happen as Americans. Period.”
Biden’s comments about Putin come amid controversy over Democratic National Committee emails damaging to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, which the US intelligence community believe were most likely hacked by Russia and then posted on the WikiLeaks site.
Biden’s remark, made in the context of a political speech, drew applause from a sympathetic audience of Democratic delegates frustrated with Trump’s seemingly warm views toward Putin and Russia.
But in using the term, he risks further fraying the already strained relationship between the Obama and Putin governments at a time when they are mired in a series of global crisis where their separate and mutual interests are at stake.
In calling the Russian president a “dictator,” Biden is echoing criticism lobbed at the leader by his domestic political opponents, who say Putin is tightening his grip on power through increasingly authoritarian tactics.
It’s a term rarely invoked by the Obama administration, and typically reserved for American’s staunchest geopolitical foes, such as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. At previous, less overtly political moments, the White House has dismissed the suggestion that the countries are returning to their traditional antagonistic roles and rejected assessments – sometimes from senior military officers – that Russia poses the largest threat to America.
A White House official said Thursday morning that Biden’s description of Putin didn’t reflect an official administration stance, though no official designation for “dictator” exists in legal or diplomatic proceedings.
But White House spokesman Josh Earnest noted later Thursday that a State Department report described Russia as having “a highly centralized, authoritarian political system, dominated by President Vladimir Putin.”
Earnest continued, “You’d be hard-pressed to draw a distinction between the word that Vice President Biden used and the language that was included in the State Department.”
He wouldn’t say, however, whether President Barack Obama believes Putin is a dictator.
In applying the term to Putin, Biden is disparaging the leader of a country that, while often at odds with the US, has also been a key partner on issues like Iran’s denuclearization and the fight against ISIS in Syria.
Until now, it’s a line the White House has not crossed with respect to Putin.
Obama has been asked several times in interviews and news conferences to give his take on Putin but has preferred to critique his counterpart’s policies and actions as opposed to making broader assessments of his leadership style.
At a G7 summit last year, Obama offered perhaps his most pointed criticism of Putin, saying the leader has a choice to make: “Does he continue to wreck his country’s economy and continue Russia’s isolation in pursuit of a wrong-headed desire to recreate the glories of the Soviet Empire? Or does he recognize that Russia’s greatness does not depend on violating the territorial integrity and sovereignty of other countries?”
“I don’t want to psychoanalyze Mr. Putin,” Obama told a Buzzfeed reporter a few months earlier. “I will say that he has a foot very much in the Soviet past.”
“That’s how he came of age. He ran the KGB,” Obama continued. “Those were his formative experiences. So I think he looks at problems through this Cold War lens, and, as a consequence, I think he’s missed some opportunities for Russia to diversify its economy, to strengthen its relationship with its neighbors, to represent something different than the old Soviet-style aggression.”
Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, was also careful in his rhetoric with regard to Putin and Russia, sparing them from his so-called “axis of evil” designation and famously saying he looked into Putin’s eyes and got “a sense of his soul.”
Yet, as experts increasingly link Russia to hacks of US government systems, the Obama administration has been using stronger language to describe Russian behavior.
In an interview with NBC News earlier this week, Obama said it was “possible” the hacking of the DNC server was orchestrated on behalf of Russian intelligence services to influence the US election. “Anything’s possible,” he said.
“What we do know,” he continued, “is that the Russians hack our systems. Not just government systems, but private systems.”
The president’s comment was the farthest the US government has gone to publicly blame Russia for carrying out cyber attacks on the US.
In a bid to discourage foreign government cyber attacks, the administration in recent years has pursued a “name and shame” policy, publicly attributing computer intrusions to government entities in China, North Korea and Iran. But not Russia.
Lisa Monaco, appearing Tuesday at a cyber-security conference hosted by the FBI and Fordham University in New York, said there wasn’t a reluctance to name Russia. Determining attribution takes investigative work, which is ongoing, she said.
Russia, for its part, has denied allegations that it was involved with the DNC hack and trying to sway the US vote. “President Putin said numerous times that Russia has never interfered and doesn’t interfere in domestic affairs of other countries, especially in electing campaigns,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “Moscow carefully avoids any actions or words that might be seen as interference in an electoral process.”
Senior administration officials, however, said they were fairly sure about Russian involvement in the hacking – but that evidence tying them to WikiLeaks is less clear.
And they acknowledged the motive behind the hacking is not certain. Russia could have been trying to influence the election on behalf of Trump, if they carried it, or to make mischief more generally and create chaos during the election.
Officials stressed that the administration is only beginning to talk through a possible US response, which could involve cyber countermeasures. They added that sanctions are also possible but will not be easy to apply in a hacking case like this, particularly since the authority might not exist in the current Executive Order dealing with punishment for a cyber attack.
But the exploration of responses following US intelligence assessments that Russia is most likely behind the DNC hack, along with the comments by Biden and Obama, come at a time when the Democrats see a political opening in Trump’s posture on Russia.
The GOP nominee has repeatedly made positive comments about Putin. And Biden’s speech came hours after Trump called on Russian intelligence agencies Wednesday to share 30,000 of Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails if they could find them. He said Thursday that the comment was sarcastic.
Biden was only one of many speakers at the Democratic National Convention to use Putin to beat up on Trump.
Illinois Rep. Tammy Duckworth, who lost both her legs fighting in the Iraq War, told the Republican candidate from the stage Thursday evening: “Donald Trump, I didn’t put my life on the line to defend our democracy so you could invite Russia to interfere in it. You are not fit to be the commander in chief.”
The Democrats have seized on the DNC hack to allege that Putin has done it to help Trump.
The Trump campaign has rejected the speculation as “a deflection.”
CNN’s Naomi Lim contributed to this report.