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Killer Politics

The long history of political murder shows that its incidence has waxed and waned through different epochs. And recent political and technological developments suggest that the practice may be returning with a vengeance.

LONDON – On the final leg of his first European tour as US president, Joe Biden met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva. The period leading up to the meeting felt like two heavyweight champions squaring up and trading insults before a historic showdown. In the blue corner, Biden had readily agreed with a TV interviewer in mid-March that Putin is “a killer.” He then added that Putin has no soul (an obvious rebuke to former US President George W. Bush, who once claimed to have gotten a sense of that very thing).

The response from the red corner was immediate. Putin, ensconced in his COVID-proof sealed residence, menacingly wished Biden “good health” and retorted with the adolescent barb: “It takes one to know one.” He then treated his interviewer to a disquisition on the psychology of projection. Biden was merely imputing to Russia his own country’s penchant for killing people – an observation by then-President Donald Trump on Fox News in February 2017.

After “constructive” talks with Biden, Putin quoted Tolstoy on “glimmers of hope,” although he robustly threw the crisis of American democracy back in American faces. US and Russian ambassadors will return to their embassies, and some formal mechanisms will be put in place to deal with cyberattacks, the climate, and the COVID-19 crisis. While Biden is keen to have “predictability” in Russian behavior, notably in Europe, so the US can focus on China, it seems highly unlikely that Putin will oblige him. Putin constantly needs to remind the world that Russia deserves “respect” in its own right and not as an appendage of the People’s Republic.

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