MOSCOW, Russia — President Vladimir Putin responded Thursday to U.S. President Joe Biden’s description of the Russian leader as a killer by citing America’s past and present troubles, from slavery and the slaughter of Native Americans to racial injustice.
Biden was asked in an interview this week whether he thought Putin was a killer, and he replied, “I do,” a remark that prompted Russia to recall its ambassador in Washington for consultations and warn about further retaliation.
Biden has taken a tough stance on Russia, saying that the days of the U.S. “rolling over” to Putin are done, contrasting his style with the approach of former President Donald Trump, who avoided direct confrontation and frequently spoke about Putin with approval.
Putin was asked about Biden’s comment during a video call marking the anniversary of Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea, and he responded with an “it-takes-one-to-know-one”-style remark, saying his counterpart's words reflected the United States’ own problems. At the same time, he offered to have a phone call with Biden to discuss issues of mutual interest.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday that Biden will continue to look to work with Putin on areas of mutual concern such as efforts to stem Iran’s nuclear program and, more broadly, nuclear nonproliferation. But she said that Biden is “not going to hold back” when he has concerns about Putin’s actions.
Psaki added that Biden did not regret referring to Putin as a killer and pushed back against suggestions that the rhetoric was unhelpful.
“President Biden has known President Putin for a long time,” Psaki said. “They’ve both been on the global stage for a long time, worked through many iterations of a relationship between the United States and Russia. And he believes we can continue to do that.”
Psaki also dismissed Putin’s “it-takes-one-to-know-one”-style response, suggesting Biden’s words reflected the United States’ own problems.
“The president believes that one of the greatest attributes of the United States is our honest self-reflection, and our constant striving for progress and there’s always more work to do,” she said.
Putin in his remarks pointed at the U.S. atomic bombing of Japan during World War II, as well as its history of slavery and slaughtering Native Americans, noting the painful legacies weighing on the United States.
“Otherwise, where would the Black Lives Matter movement come from?” he said, citing racial injustice and the killing of African Americans.
The exchange of tough statements follows a declassified report from the U.S. national intelligence director’s office that found Putin authorized influence operations to try to help Trump in his failed bid to win reelection in November. The Kremlin has dismissed the report as baseless.
“(Putin) will pay a price,” Biden said in the interview, asked about the declassified report.
Biden’s administration warned that Russia would face sanctions soon over its attempt to influence last year’s U.S. election and the massive Solar Wind hacks.
The spiraling tensions have brought U.S.-Russian relations to the point where they were at the end of President Barack Obama's administration, a chilly strain that differed markedly from Trump’s efforts to court Putin.
Asked what he would tell Biden in response to his remarks, Putin said: “I would tell him: ‘Be well.’ I wish him health, and I say that without any irony or joking.”
Recalling his youth, Putin said that he and his friends would respond to insults with the taunt: “The names you call are what you are yourself” — a Russian version of the childhood riposte, “I’m rubber, you’re glue; what you say bounces off me and sticks to you.”
“It's not just a rhymed childish joke; it has a deep psychological meaning: We see our own qualities in another person, we think he's like us and judge him accordingly,” he added.
He noted that Russia would still cooperate with the United States where and when it supports Moscow’s interests, adding that “a lot of honest and decent people in the U.S want to have peace and friendship with Russia.”
“I know that the U.S. and its leadership is generally inclined to have certain relations with us, but only on issues which are of interest to the U.S. and on its conditions,” Putin said. “But we know how to defend our own interests, and we will work with them only in the areas we are interested in and on conditions we see as beneficial to ourselves. And they will have to reckon with it.”
Speaking in separate comments later Thursday, Putin said he would ask the Foreign Ministry to arrange a call with Biden in the next few days to discuss the coronavirus pandemic, regional conflicts and other issues.
“I wouldn't delay it for long, I would like to go to the taiga for a quick break over the weekend, so we can do it tomorrow or Monday,” Putin said in televised remarks, without specifying where in Siberia he plans to visit.
“We must continue our relations,” he noted. “Last time, President Biden initiated a call and now I would like to offer President Biden to continue our discussions. It would be in the interest of both Russian and the U.S. people and other countries, bearing in mind that we bear a special responsibility for global security as the largest nuclear powers.”
Other Russian officials and lawmakers were less diplomatic.
Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia's Security Council who served as president in 2008-2012 when Putin had to shift into the premier’s job because of term limits, said that “time hasn’t spared" the 78-year-old Biden and cited Sigmund Freud as saying, “Nothing costs so much in life as illness and stupidity.”
And Andrei Turchak, the leader of the main pro-Kremlin United Russia party, described Biden’s remarks as a reflection of “the U.S. political marasmus and its leader’s dementia.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov deplored what he called “very bad remarks by the U.S. president,” noting that that "there was nothing like that in history.”
Konstantin Kosachev, a deputy speaker of the Russian parliament's upper house, said Biden’s “boorish statement” marks a watershed in Washington's relations with Moscow, warning that Russia’s response wouldn’t be limited to recalling its ambassador “if the American side fails to offer explanation and excuse.”
Russia's relations with the United States and the European Union already have plunged to post-Cold War lows after Moscow's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, election meddling, hacking attacks and most recently, the jailing of Russia's opposition leader Alexei Navalny that followed his poisoning he blamed on the Kremlin. Russian authorities rejected the accusations.
Asked about Biden's remark on Putin, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Berlin expects “a clear language in Washington toward Russia,” but emphasized that “there needs to be dialogue and agreement” on issues such as climate change and disarmament, noting that Biden quickly extended the New START arms control agreement with Russia.
Associated Press writers Aamer Madhani in Washington and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed.