For two US leaders, it all came down to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s soul.
“I looked the man in the eye. I found him very straightforward and trustworthy – I was able to get a sense of his soul,” President George W Bush said in 2000 after his first meeting with Putin, then a fledgeling, shy helmsman who sought the approval of Western political heavyweights.
At the time, Washington saw Russia as an emerging democracy convalescing from the phantom pains that followed the loss of Moscow’s Cold War-era might. To Bush’s White House, Moscow was a regional power with a struggling economy and a dysfunctional military that could barely handle Chechnya.
Eleven years later, US Vice President Joe Biden met with the seasoned, self-confident Putin, who was sitting out his two-term limit as prime minister under his handpicked successor, Dmitri Medvedev.
Biden rebuked Putin for stifling opposition and persecuting oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Then their dialogue took a macabre turn.
“I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul,” Biden recalled telling Putin during a 2011 meeting in the Kremlin, according to the New Yorker magazine. “And he looked back at me, and he smiled, and he said, ‘We understand one another.’”
Biden’s boss Barack Obama saw a “reset” of ties with increasingly assertive Moscow as one of his administration’s top priorities.
But then Putin crossed a political Rubicon or two.
Moscow “reestablished” its domination in the former Soviet Union with one of its smallest neighbours, Georgia, during a brief war in 2008.
Putin revived Russia’s clout in the Middle East by repeatedly backing Iran, saving Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s collapsing regime, and placing his bets on renegade general Khalifa Haftar in war-dismembered Libya.
Moscow supported Ukrainian separatists, was reported to have backed Eurosceptic nationalists throughout the European Union, and allegedly meddled in the 2016 presidential vote in the US that brought his “friend” Donald Trump to power.
Biden will be the fifth US president to deal with Putin, who apparently understands that his chances of mending ties with the White House are thin as a reed.
Biden: ‘I’ll stand up to autocrats like Putin’
Biden sees Russia as Washington’s archrival, the “biggest threat” to America’s security.
He already called Putin’s government “paranoid” for poisoning opposition leader Alexey Navalny with the military-grade nerve agent Novichok.
“It is the mark of a Russian regime that is so paranoid that it is unwilling to tolerate any criticism or dissent,” he said in early October.
Biden’s approach to Moscow is by far more consistent than Trump’s – and is part of his larger strategy of restoring America’s global clout. Biden intends to rebuild frayed ties with the EU and is determined to revive pressure on strongmen like Putin.
“Unlike Trump, I’ll defend our democratic values and stand up to autocrats like Putin,” Biden tweeted in August.
Observers see no silver lining in the clouds gathering above the Kremlin.
“Biden obviously promised to rally the West against Trumpism, the worldwide Trumpism,” Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Moscow think-tank told Al Jazeera. “And he sees Putin as part of this global Trumpism.”
Silence from the Kremlin
Meanwhile, the Kremlin has been deliberately quiet about Biden’s election victory.
While most Western leaders sent their congratulations to Biden on November 7, after several television networks declared him the winner of the November 3 vote, Putin is waiting for the final tally.
“We believe it’s correct to wait for the official results of the elections to be announced,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov told reporters during a phone briefing on November 9.
After Trump’s 2016 victory, the Kremlin sent out a felicitation within hours.
Peskov cautiously expressed hope in the “normalisation” of ties with the new administration – but did not mention Biden, following an old Kremlin tradition of omitting the names of politicians that displeased Moscow.
In a rare remark about the US election, Putin has also refrained from naming Biden.
“We will work with any future president of the United States – the one whom the American people give their vote of confidence,” Putin said in a lengthy television interview broadcast on October 7, his 68th birthday.
Pro-Kremlin television networks and publications were far more vocal.
They showed an archive clip of Soviet Prime Minister Andrey Gromyko meeting with congressman Biden in 1998. They ridiculed Biden’s age and alleged senility, and doubted the reliability of the US electoral system, echoing Trump’s unfounded claims about a “stolen election”.
Dmitri Kiselyov, a pro-Putin television personality who once said the US should be turned into “radioactive ashes”, said on his Sunday night show that the election proved that the US is “not a country but a huge, chaotic communal apartment, with a criminal flair.”
“One thing is clear – the US has dealt a crushing blow to the remnants of trust to the very procedure of the elections,” Vladimir Soloviev, another popular anchor, said in a November 5 tweet.
Tough on Putin
But how exactly can Biden pressure Russia?
One of the flashpoints is a peace settlement in Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists have been fighting the central government since 2014. Biden has repeatedly said that he wants NATO to expand and, possibly, include Ukraine.
Such a move will surely antagonise Putin – and could incite more violence in the separatist region of Donbass.
“Strong pressure on Russia may trigger an escalation in Donbass,” Aleksey Kushch, an analyst based in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, told Al Jazeera.
Another pressure point is economic.
The West has already sanctioned Moscow for annexing Crimea by banning the transfer of sophisticated technologies for Russia’s oil and gas industry and restricting credits for Russian banks and energy companies.
The US has also sanctioned the construction of Russia’s most important energy project – the $11bn natural gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 designed to double Russia’s pipeline capacity to take gas undersea to Europe and bypass Ukraine that depends on hefty transit fees.
But while these sanctions hurt Russia’s economy, they have been used by some media to demonise the collective West.
What proved more efficient is pinpointed personal sanctions against top Russian officials, and Biden may expand the list.