Letter From the Editors

Words can hurt. Sometimes even when they’re not said. Take, for instance, Joe Biden’s interview with ABC, in which he indirectly called Russian President Vladimir Putin a killer. To be fair, the US president never actually said the word “killer” – he was prodded into it by George Stephanopoulos, who asked: “So you know Vladimir Putin. You think he’s a killer?” Biden replied with “Uh-huh,” and “I do.” Unsurprisingly, this set off a storm of indignation in Moscow. State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin called the remark “impotent rage.” Andrei Turchak, head of United Russia’s General Council, elaborated on that sentiment, calling it the “extremely aggressive behavior of an impotent man.” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova attributed the remarks to the new US administration’s approaching 100-day “performance review.”

But perhaps none of them could top Vladimir Putin’s “I know you are, but what am I?” Yes, speaking to residents of the Crimea and Sevastopol, the Russian president decided to go with the favorite retort of six-year-olds everywhere. Putin attempted to turn the tables on the US president, saying that Biden is the killer, since the US elite are responsible for the genocide of Native American tribes, slavery, and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. According to Aleksandr Ryklin, these remarks are actually intended to open the bidding with Washington: You say that Biden didn’t mean what he said, so let’s look for a compromise together. Simply put, this is Putin’s way of going “Say it ain’t so, Joe!”

But Washington is unlikely to take Putin up on his offer. “Joe Biden did not slip up – he intentionally and deliberately closed the door for Vladimir Putin to ever become a part of the global establishment. He has been written off forever,” Ryklin concludes. Knowing how much Putin values geopolitical status, this is harsh punishment indeed.

Of course, politics still has its share of comeback stories. Case in point – Belarussian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko, who had been all but written off in fall 2020 after mass protests swept the country, seems to be back in the saddle. And unlike Biden, he is taking back things he said, left and right. After promising sweeping constitutional reforms (a promise many experts think was done under pressure from Moscow), Lukashenko is now resorting to merely cosmetic changes. The newly minted constitutional commission does not include a single representative of the protest movement, while the All-Belarussian People’s Assembly, hailed as “the highest representative body for popular rule,” may serve as a convenient way for Lukashenko to “leave but stay” if he ever does actually relinquish the presidency.

Similarly, Armenia’s embattled Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan seems to have come out smelling like a rose in his battle against his detractors. Despite calls to resign by military top brass, the head of the Armenian Church, as well as hundreds of Armenian scientists and cultural figures, not to mention all three former Armenian presidents, Pashinyan is still hanging on. Moreover, his My Step bloc remains the dominant party in parliament, and is polling in first place when it comes to possible early elections – which Pashinyan finally set a date for: June 20. This was announced following the prime minister’s meeting with the leader of the mainstream opposition, Gagik Tsarukyan.

Why has Pashinyan succeeded despite such a reputational hit? According to expert Grant Mikayelyan, “the progovernment camp is consolidated, while the opposition camp is fragmented.” Moreover, the opposition has failed to come up with a positive agenda: “So Nikol is removed – then what? Will Karabakh return, will the economy grow, will investors rush in?” expert Aleksandr Iskandaryan asks rhetorically.

In a world where words and promises have largely lost meaning, perhaps simply playing the waiting game is the best approach. This brings to mind one of Putin’s favorite aphorisms: “If you sit by a river long enough, you will see the body of your enemy float by.”