As Putin lobs counter-digs, can relationship with Biden be saved?

The fracas between the two heads of state began last week, when Biden agreed during an interview that Putin is a 'killer.'
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Putin at his annual press conference
Putin at his annual press conference
(Russian Federation)

In the aftermath of an unprecedented public spat between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin, the Russian president over the weekend presented a mix of defiant statesmanship and what could be viewed as subtle yet cutting digs against his American counterpart.

The fracas began last week, when Biden agreed during an interview that Putin is a "killer," and promised that the Russian leader would "pay a price" for allegedly meddling in America’s domestic affairs. The comments prompted Putin to wish Biden well; challenge him to a debate on live television; and immediately summon Russia's ambassador home from diplomatic duty in Washington. 

Russia's Foreign Ministry on Sunday released excerpts from what it described as apology letters from Americans who are horrified by Biden's "crass," "disgraceful," and "scandalous" remarks. The unsigned excerpts included words written with British spelling and focusing on seemingly Russian talking points, such as Putin's "great intellect" and "people-to-people diplomacy." 

The Russian Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request from Just the News to release the full contents and signatures on the apology letters.

Keeping up the pressure, Putin appeared Sunday on state-run television to praise Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea, an act that continues to rankle the West.

As recently as last month, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the annexation as "a brazen affront to the modern international order," and called upon Moscow to end the seven-year-old occupation.

Putin on March 21, though, described the annexation as welcome reunification.

"A major milestone is assembling, restoring Russia as a single centralized state," Putin said while appearing on the Rossiya-1 channel. "As for the return of Crimea and Sevastopol to their native harbor, like I said earlier, then this is certainly a dramatic and a historic event, without any exaggeration," Putin added. "And this is the result of strengthening our state from inside."

The comments about Crimea can be viewed in part as poking a "thumb in the eye" of the U.S. and Biden, according to one U.S. government Russia analyst. But, the analyst noted, the Russian president also may have offered a more subtle jibe in the form of images depicting a virile Putin. 

The Kremlin on Sunday released a video of Putin and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu on an outing in the Siberian forest. In the video, Putin navigates a rickety wood-and-rope suspension bridge atop snowy terrain. As the bridge sways beneath him, Putin deftly strides forward without holding the ropes - possibly an indirect swipe at the stair-stumbling Biden, who on Friday fell three times while holding the railing and climbing the stationary steps to Air Force One. 

In one portion of the video, Putin and Shoigu wear matching light brown snow suits as they enjoy a picnic atop a fur-lined bench while sitting in the woods. The two later transit the wild in a tracked vehicle, with Putin at the helm. 

"This all has comic elements to it, but it comes from a serious place," the Russia analyst said. "It's no laughing matter to insult a foreign head of state. This creates a problem for both countries, and for others that are now placed in an awkward diplomatic situation of, do they pick sides?"

The Kremlin's Ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, arrived on Sunday at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, according to Russian state media. In describing the trip - a rare recall of a Russian ambassador from Washington - the Foreign Ministry left open the door to reconciliation. Antonov was brought home "for consultations on ways to mend Russia-U.S. ties," ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.

Antonov last week described the relationship between the two countries as being "excessively confrontational." But he, too, left open the possibility of patching things up.

"I am deeply touched by the caring and active position of ordinary Americans who understand that dialogue between our countries should be based on mutual respect and equality," Antonov wrote Friday on social media before flying to Moscow. "This approach of U.S. citizens indicates that a potential for normalizing ties between the peoples of Russia and the United States is still there."

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.