‘Children of the Cold War’: Inside Biden and Putin’s Years-in-the-Making Clash Over Ukraine

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January 24, 2023

When Russian President Vladimir Putin met with U.S. President Joe Biden in June 2021 for a highly anticipated summit in Geneva, Switzerland, the two men already had a long history.

In fact, as the new FRONTLINE documentary Putin and the Presidents explores, the Russian leader considered Biden a nemesis for years — and Biden viewed Putin with wariness. As a senator in the early 2000s, Biden publicly cautioned against “being excessively optimistic” about the new Russian president’s intentions. On a 2011 visit to Moscow as vice president in the Obama administration, Biden held, in his words, a “long and contentious” meeting with Putin, and gave a pro-democracy speech in front of Russian students. Later, Biden reportedly urged Obama — unsuccessfully — to provide Ukraine with weapons when Putin invaded Crimea in 2014.

“They’re children of the Cold War and they see each other and their countries through the Cold War,” Peter Baker of The New York Times says of Biden and Putin in the above excerpt from Putin and the Presidents. “Biden saw Putin for what he is: a KGB revanchist who wants to remake the Russian empire.”

Putin and the Presidents investigates Putin’s clashes with five American presidents, from Bill Clinton to Biden, as he’s tried to expand Russia’s influence and territory. The documentary is available to stream online ahead of its Tues., Jan. 31, premiere on PBS stations.

By the time of the 2021 Geneva summit, Putin and the Presidents reports, the Russian president had pursued his goal for two decades in defiance of his U.S. counterparts — including by invading Georgia, seizing Crimea and interfering in a U.S. presidential election. And he wasn’t about to stop.

“Putin is looking at Biden and saying, ‘This is a weak American president. He doesn’t have the overwhelming support of his public. His people are so divided — just months earlier they’d had an attack on the Capitol,’” New Yorker writer Evan Osnos says in the above excerpt from the documentary. “And all he needs to do is hold Biden off long enough so that he can continue to assemble the plan that he’s putting together.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was there in the room with the two leaders, says, “The tone of the conversation was professional. It was direct. But it was very clear where we had our differences.”

One key area of difference: Ukraine.

“President Biden made clear in the meeting to President Putin our commitment to Ukraine — our commitment to its sovereignty, to its independence, to its territorial integrity,” Blinken tells FRONTLINE in the excerpt.

Putin — who, in the words of Puck News journalist Julia Ioffe, wanted Ukraine as part of a “pan-Slavic superstate with Moscow as the capital” — was undeterred. In the months after the summit, he would lay the groundwork for, and then embark on, an invasion of Ukraine, despite another warning from Biden of severe consequences.

“He made a calculation that Biden would not be able to lead an international group of countries to support Ukraine and that there wouldn’t be the will to support Ukraine,” former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch says in the above excerpt. “Even if it was there in the beginning, it would not continue.”

As Putin and the Presidents reports, Putin’s calculation was informed by the decisions of a string of Biden’s predecessors: “Vladimir Putin understands the Western ability to make decisive steps pretty well,” Russian journalist Yevgenia Albats says in the excerpt. “…When President Biden said, ‘Don’t do this or you know there will be consequences,’ he knew that there were not going to be any consequences.”

Yet when the battle for Ukraine began, Biden went further than any U.S. president before him: delivering intelligence and weapons to the front lines to help fight Russia.

“The United States has opted in to the fight,” Susan Glasser of The New Yorker tells FRONTLINE. “The amount and scale of the military support for Ukraine’s defense of itself against Russian aggression is enormous. It’s staggering. Clearly something that Vladimir Putin did not expect.”

For the full story, watch Putin and the Presidents. As Russia’s war on Ukraine approaches the one-year mark, the documentary draws on in-depth conversations with insiders from five U.S. presidential administrations, former U.S. intelligence leaders, diplomats, and Russian and American journalists to offer essential context on how we reached this point.

“I think it’s a very dangerous moment,” Yovanovitch says in the documentary. “It’s a dangerous moment for Ukraine. I think it’s a dangerous moment for Russia, because it’s hard to see what the pathway forward is. It’s a dangerous time.”

Putin and the Presidents is available to stream in full now at pbs.org/frontline, in the PBS App and on FRONTLINE’s YouTube channel:

Putin and the Presidents will premiere on PBS stations on Jan. 31, 2023, at 10/9c (check local listings). In tandem with the broadcast premiere, FRONTLINE will publish new extended interviews from the making of the documentary as part of the FRONTLINE Transparency Project. Putin and the Presidents is a FRONTLINE production with the Kirk Documentary Group. The director is Michael Kirk. The producers are Michael Kirk, Mike Wiser and Vanessa Fica. The writers are Michael Kirk and Mike Wiser. The reporter is Vanessa Fica. The editor-in-chief and executive producer of FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath.


Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE

Twitter:

@ptaddonio

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