President Joe Biden said in an exclusive CNN interview Tuesday he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin is a “rational actor” who nonetheless badly misjudged his ability to invade Ukraine and suppress its people.
“I think he is a rational actor who has miscalculated significantly,” Biden told Jake Tapper as Russian bombardments on civilian targets in Ukraine signaled another turning point in the months-long war.
As the conflict in Ukraine nears its eighth month, the interview with Biden provided new insight into his thinking as top US officials view the fighting in Ukraine with growing concern.
Biden, who warned last week that the risk of "nuclear Armageddon" is at its highest level in 60 years, said in the interview that the threat emanating from Russia could lead to catastrophic "mistakes" and "miscalculations," even though he declined to spell out. Find out how precisely the United States will react if Putin deploys strategic nuclear weapons on the battlefields of Ukraine.
And he said there would be "consequences" after Saudi Arabia announced a partnership with Moscow to cut oil production, a move that could push up gas prices as November's midterm elections approach.
Biden, his top officials, and fellow Western leaders have debated over the past few months what steps Putin might take as his troops face embarrassing losses on the battlefield in Ukraine. Whether Putin is acting rationally has become a matter of intense debate as leaders work to predict his next moves. While Biden said Tuesday he believes Putin is being reasonable, he characterized the Russian leader's goals in Ukraine — which Putin outlined in an angry speech in February when he launched the war — as ridiculous.
“You listen to what he says. If you listen to the speech he gave after making this decision, he talked about the whole idea - he had to be the leader of Russia that united all Russian speakers. I mean, it's just I think it's absurd," Biden said. Going further, Biden said that Putin mistakenly believed that Ukrainians would capitulate to a Russian invasion — a misconception that has been disproved by fierce resistance inside the country.
“I think the speech and his motives were not reasonable. I think he thought, Jack, I think he thought he was going to be welcomed with open arms, that this is the home of Mother Russia in Kyiv, and that's where he's going to be welcomed, and I think he totally miscalculated," Biden said.
Indeed, a counteroffensive launched by Ukraine last month succeeded in recapturing territory previously occupied by the Russians, including important transport hubs. The loss proved the latest major embarrassment for Russia, whose military has struggled throughout the seven-month war.
This week, however, Russia launched its worst bombing campaign since the invasion in late February. At least 19 people were killed and more than 100 injured across the country, as far as the western city of Lviv, hundreds of miles from the main theater of war in eastern and southern Ukraine. Asked if he would meet Putin at next month's Group of 20 summits in Indonesia, Biden said he didn't see a good reason to sit down.
"It would depend specifically on what he wanted to talk about," Biden said, adding that he would be open to talking if Putin wanted to discuss jailed American basketball star, Brittney Griner. "But look, he acted brutally, he acted brutally," Biden said. “I think he committed war crimes. And so I don't, I don't see any reason to meet him now."
After Biden warned last week that the risk of nuclear "Armageddon" was at an all-time high after the Cuban missile crisis, he told Tapper he didn't believe Putin would ultimately take that step.
Nuclear 'error' or 'miscalculation miscalculation'
"I don't think he will," Biden said when asked by Tapper whether the Russian leader would use tactical nuclear weapons — a prospect viewed with concern by U.S. officials as Russian troops have suffered embarrassing losses on the battlefield.
"I think it's irresponsible for him to talk about it, the idea that the world leader of one of the world's largest nuclear powers has said he could use a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine," Biden added.
Biden said even Putin's threat had a destabilizing effect and warned of potential errors of judgment that could occur.
"The whole point I was making was that it could just lead to a horrible outcome," he told Tapper. "And not because anybody wants to turn it into a world war or anything, but once you use nuclear weapons, the mistakes that can be made, the miscalculations, who knows what will happen."
"He cannot, indeed, continue with impunity to talk about the use of a tactical nuclear weapon as if it were a reasonable thing to do," Biden later added. "Mistakes happen. And miscalculations can happen, no one can be sure what will happen and it can end in Armageddon."
Biden declined to reveal what the U.S. response would be if Putin followed through on his nuclear threat. But he said the Defense Department actively created panic if the situation did occur.
"What is the red line for the United States and NATO, and have you directed the Pentagon and other agencies to determine what the response would be if he uses tactical nuclear weapons or if he bombs the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine? Something along those lines. ?" Tapper asked.
"It's been discussed, but I'm not going to get into it. It would be irresponsible of me to talk about what we will or won't do," Biden said. "Did you ask the Pentagon to play it, though?" Tapper asked. "The Pentagon doesn't have to ask," Biden said.
Biden spoke with Tapper hours after meeting virtually with members of the Group of 7 industrialized nations, who heard from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky about the need to bolster his country's air defenses amid renewed Russian bombing. Zelensky said at the meeting that "general efforts to create an air shield for Ukraine" should be strengthened amid the barrage of Russian cruise missiles and drone strikes.
White House officials have said the United States is poised to bolster Ukraine's air defenses, including a missile defense system that Biden accelerated delivery of over the summer.
Yet Russia's intensified airstrikes on the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and civilian infrastructure suggest that Putin may be using new tactics to terrorize Ukrainians as a consequence of the winter app for Saudi Arabia. Biden told Tapper that he believed it was time to "reassess" the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia after the kingdom partnered with Russia to cut oil production, a rebuke following intense White House efforts to prevent such a decision.
"I'm in the process, when the House and the Senate come back, they're going to have to — there's going to be some consequences for what they've done with Russia," Biden said.
Last week's decision to cut production by the Saudi-led OPEC+ oil cartel sparked outrage at the White House, where officials said Biden was personally disappointed by what they called a "short-sighted" decision.
The move, which comes three months after Biden visited Saudi Arabia and met with its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is likely to raise gas prices in the weeks before November's midterm elections. "Let's get straight to why I went," Biden said. "I didn't take the oil, I made sure we made sure we weren't going away from the Middle East."
After peaking in the summer, gas prices have steadily declined, making a strong case for Biden and his top aides leading up to the election. But a combination of factors, including rising demand and maintenance at some US refineries, have started to tick prices up again. The OPEC+ decision is set to exacerbate those factors.
For Biden, the decision was a particular affront given his efforts over the summer to repair ties with Saudi Arabia, despite the kingdom's damaging human rights record and bin Salman's role in the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
This story was further updated from an interview with Biden.