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
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
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
"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. ?"
"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
"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"
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.