Watch Jake Tapper’s exclusive interview with President Joe Biden on CNN Tonight with Jake Tapper at 9 p.m. ET Tuesday.
President Joe Biden He said in an exclusive interview with CNN on Tuesday Russian President Vladimir Putin is believed to be a “rational actor” who nevertheless underestimated his ability to invade Ukraine and oppress its people.
“I think he’s a rational player who miscalculated greatly,” Biden told Jake Tapper, as the Russian bombing of civilian targets in Ukraine signaled another turning point in the months-long war.
As the conflict in Ukraine approaches its eighth month, the interview with Biden provided new insight into his thinking as senior US officials watch the fighting in Ukraine with growing concern.
Biden, who warned last week that the risk of a “nuclear Armageddon” was at its highest level in 60 years, said in the interview that threats from Russia could lead to catastrophic “mistakes” and “miscalculation,” even when he declined to say so. How accurately would the United States respond if Putin deployed a tactical nuclear device to the battlefield in Ukraine?
He said there would be “consequences” for Saudi Arabia after it partnered with Moscow to announce a cut in oil production, a move that could drive up gas prices as mid-term elections approach in November.
Biden, his senior officials and fellow Western leaders have spent the past several months discussing what steps Putin might take as his forces suffer embarrassing battlefield losses in Ukraine.
Whether Putin is acting rationally has been the subject of intense debate as leaders work to predict his next steps. While Biden said on Tuesday that he believed Putin himself was rational, he called the Russian leader’s goals in Ukraine — which Putin expressed in an angry speech when he launched the war in February — as absurd.
“You listen to what he says. If you listen to the speech he gave after making that decision, he talked about the whole idea — he was required to be the leader of a Russia that unites all Russian speakers. I mean, I just think it doesn’t make sense,” Biden said.
Going forward, Biden said Putin mistakenly believed the Ukrainians would be subject to Russian invasion — a miscalculation that was refuted by fierce resistance within the country.
I think the discourse and its goals were not rational. “I think he thought, Jake, I think he thought he would be welcomed with open arms, that this was the home of Mother Russia in Kyiv, and that’s where he would be welcomed, and I think he totally miscalculated,” Biden said.
Indeed, Ukraine’s counterattack last month was successful in retaking the territories previously under Russian control, including important transport hubs. The losses constituted the latest major embarrassment for Russia, whose army struggled over the course of the seven-month war.
However, this week Russia launched one of its heaviest bombing campaigns since the invasion in late February. At least 19 people were killed and more than 100 wounded across the country, as far away as the western city of Lviv, hundreds of miles from the main theaters of war in eastern and southern Ukraine.
When asked if he will meet with Putin at the G-20 summit next month in Indonesia, Biden said he saw no good reason to sit down.
“It will depend on what specifically he wants to talk about,” Biden said, adding that if Putin wanted to discuss imprisoned NBA star Britney Greiner, he would be open to talking.
“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 logical reason to meet him now.”
After Biden warned last week that the threat of nuclear “Armageddon” was at its highest since the Cuban missile crisis, he told Tapper he didn’t think Putin would eventually take that step.
“I don’t think he would,” Biden said when asked by Tapper if the Russian leader would use a tactical nuclear weapon — a possibility that U.S. officials watched with apprehension as Russian forces suffered embarrassing battlefield losses.
“I think it’s irresponsible for him to talk about that, the idea that a world leader of one of the world’s largest nuclear powers says he might use a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine,” Biden added.
Even Putin’s threats have a destabilizing effect, Biden said, and warned of potential errors of judgment that could ensue.
“All I was doing was that it could lead to a horrific outcome,” he told Tapper. “Not because anyone intends to turn it into a world war or something else, but once you use a nuclear weapon, the mistakes that can be made, the miscalculation, who knows what will happen.”
Biden later added, “In fact, he can’t keep talking about using a tactical nuclear weapon with impunity as if it made sense.” “Mistakes are made. Miscalculation can happen, and no one can be sure what will happen and it can end in Armageddon.”
Biden refused to say what the US response would look like if Putin pursued his nuclear threats. But he said the Defense Department proactively developed contingencies should the scenario occur.
“What is the red line for the United States and NATO, and have they directed the Pentagon and other agencies to manipulate what the response would be if they actually used a tactical nuclear weapon or if they bombed the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant in Ukraine or something along those lines?” Taber asked.
“There have been discussions about that, but I won’t get into that. It would be irresponsible of me to talk about what we’re going to do or not do,” Biden said.
“Did you ask the Pentagon to manipulate it, though?” Taber asked.
“It wasn’t necessary to ask the Pentagon,” Biden said.
Biden spoke to Taber Almost a few hours after the meeting With members of the Group of Seven industrialized countries, who heard from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky about the need to strengthen His country’s air defenses amid the new Russian bombing.
Zelensky said at the meeting that “joint efforts to create an air shield for Ukraine” should be intensified amid a barrage of Russian cruise missiles and drone attacks.
White House officials have said the United States is prepared to further enhance Ukraine’s air defenses, including through missile defense systems that Biden rushed to deliver over the summer.
However, the intense Russian air attack on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and on civilian infrastructure suggests that Putin may use new tactics aimed at terrorizing Ukrainians as winter approaches.
Biden told Tapper he believes it is time to “rethink” the US relationship with Saudi Arabia after the kingdom partnered with Russia to cut oil production, a rebuke after intense efforts by the White House to block such a decision.
“I’m in the process, when the House and Senate come back, they’re going to have to — there are going to be some consequences for what they did with Russia,” Biden said.
The Saudi-led OPEC+ decision to cut production last week sparked outrage in the White House, with officials saying Biden was personally disappointed by what they called the “short-sighted” decision.
The move, which came three months after Biden visited Saudi Arabia and met its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is likely to raise gas prices in the weeks leading up to the midterm elections in November.
“Let’s understand why I’m going,” Biden said. “I didn’t go looking for oil, I worked to make sure we made sure we didn’t pull out of the Middle East.”
Having reached high levels over the summer, gas prices have been steadily falling, providing Biden and his top aides a powerful talking point in the run-up to the election.
But a combination of factors, including increased demand and maintenance at some US refineries, caused prices to start rising again. The OPEC + decision is set to exacerbate these factors.
For Biden, the decision was a particular insult to his efforts over the summer to mend relations with Saudi Arabia, despite the kingdom’s sad human rights record and bin Salman’s role in the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
This story has been updated with more interviews with Biden.