"I don’t think you have a soul."
That's what Vice President Joe Biden said to then-Prime Minister of Russia Vladimir Putin in 2011. The quote surfaced in a detailed profile of Biden and his foreign policy work in the July 28 issue of the New Yorker.
But in the aftermath of the Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 jet that was shot down by alleged pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine on Thursday, killing all 289 onboard, Biden’s quote is eerily apropos.
Having likely supplied the rebels with the means to take down a commercial jet, Putin has been painted the biggest villain in the situation.
So how did the Biden-Putin confrontation go down?
Biden recalls his meeting with Putin three years ago for New Yorker writer Evan Osnos:
To illustrate his emphasis on personality as a factor in foreign affairs, Biden recalled visiting Putin at the Kremlin in 2011: "I had an interpreter, and when he was showing me his office I said, 'It's amazing what capitalism will do, won’t it? A magnificent office!' And he laughed. As I turned, I was this close to him." Biden held his hand a few inches from his nose. "I said, 'Mr. Prime Minister, I'm looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.'"
"You said that?" I asked. It sounded like a movie line.
"Absolutely, positively," Biden said, and continued, "And he looked back at me, and he smiled, and he said, 'We understand one another.'" Biden sat back, and said, "This is who this guy is!"
The telling moment between Biden and Putin is likely a reference, as the Huffington Post notes, to a remark former President George W. Bush famously made in 2010: "I looked in his eyes and saw his soul," speaking of his own encounter with Putin.
Bush evidently did not see the same thing Biden did, or for that matter what the rest of the world is seeing now: a cold, soul-less man who is frivolously endangering people's lives.
Biden is not alone. Global sentiment against Putin and Russia now runs high. Many Malaysians resent Putin and his actions in the aftermath of the tragedy, blaming him for the mishandling of the corpses and the inefficiency of Russia’s government who isn’t ensuring the proper access for authorities to the crash site.
In Europe, public sentiment in the Netherlands, which accounted for the majority of the victims, has moved dramatically against Putin. A Dutch father of a schoolgirl killed aboard took his anger to the media, writing an open letter "accusing the Russian president and pro-Kremlin rebels in eastern Ukraine of ruining his life," according to the DailyMail. The father added, "I hope you can look in the mirror you monster," speaking directly to Putin.
What comes next for Putin? As USA Today notes:
Putin has spent recent years testing how far he can go, sending troops into Georgia, annexing Crimea and even conducting military maneuvers near the border of the Baltic states. For the most part, he has found European resolve sorely lacking and signaled his intent to keep testing the limits.
The airline tragedy has put human faces on Putin's territorial ambitions. If it doesn't galvanize the West to thwart him, it's hard to see what would.
This story has been updated.