NOBODY expected a diplomatic breakthrough last night between “Sleepy” Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin tyrant he believes is a “killer” and a man “without a soul”.
But any faint hope died as a hostile Putin used a press conference to denounce the US for running “secret CIA prisons across the world, including Europe”.
He traded on America’s race wars, accusing police of shooting fleeing citizens “in the back of the neck”. “Who’s the killer here?” he implied.
The extraordinary outburst came after two hours of talks in Geneva aimed at healing open wounds between the two nuclear superpowers.
Instead of opening a new era of peaceful relations, the talks achieved little more than standard agreements on strategic nuclear stability and cyber warfare.
The two sides agreed to restore ambassadors, withdrawn this year after President Biden branded ex-KGB officer Putin a cold-eyed “killer”. (“It takes one to know one,” responded Putin, who sees Biden, 78, as an old man in a hurry.)
Putin oozed contempt as he brushed aside questions about his autocratic leadership and treatment of arch-critic Alexei Navalny.
Navalny came close to death after Russian agents sprayed his underpants with deadly Novichok, fleeing to Germany for life-saving treatment. He is now in jail, said Putin, because he returned to Russia “asking to be arrested”.
Biden tried to be more upbeat. “The last thing he wants is a Cold War with America,” he said.
But he could not conceal the deep divisions between the two leaders over Navalny, free speech and a free press.
“Where we have differences, I want Mr Putin to understand why I say what I say and do what I do, and how we react to specific occasions that harm America’s interests,” he said.
“No US President could keep faith with the American people if he did not defend our democratic values and fundamental freedoms.
“This is not against Russia — it is for the American people. How could I be President of the United States and not speak out against violations of human rights?”
And violations are there many. Putin runs a corrupt and near-bankrupt mafia-style kleptocracy masquerading as a Soviet-style superpower.
Biden’s America remains the world’s supreme military and economic superpower.
On paper there is no comparison. But Russia is an unpredictable nuclear power with ambitions beyond its resources, including territorial expansion to former Soviet states such as Ukraine and the Baltic.
Putin, a KGB monster, cheerfully poisons political opponents and sends hired killers to slaughter critics on the streets of Britain and continental Europe.
There is no pathway to harmony between the two sides — and Putin doesn’t want one. He relies on his sneering belligerence towards the West to impress enemies at home.
It is hard to imagine but there are plenty worse characters itching to take over as Capo dei Capi of Russia’s mafia gangs.
The US is paying the price for trying to placate Russia and China. Biden leads what is still the world’s greatest superpower but the US is a shadow of its former self, in thrall to woke pacifists, bitterly divided over race and identity politics.
Putin, with a hollow economy and clapped-out military, deploys Russia’s nuclear threat by air and sea to probe the weaknesses of the Western alliance. Yet this pint-sized tyrant would be nothing but for communist China.
Russia is a minnow in murky waters. China provides the bully with protection. Meanwhile, the fabled post-war Western alliance is falling apart at the seams.
The EU has bent the knee to the authoritarian demands of both regimes. Its handwringing impotence was exposed by Russia’s power grab in Ukraine and Crimea.
The controversial gas pipeline deal between Moscow and Berlin makes Germany reliant on Russia’s natural gas reserves. It is an alliance with the devil.
China has seized on this weakness by stealth, encircling the world with its “Belt and Road” domination of key ports, communications and minerals on which the world relies.
In a breathtaking failure of strategic thinking, Germany has handed over one of its most vital shipping ports on the Rhine — tantamount to military and economic surrender. Nothing encourages a bully like appeasement.
As Donald Trump warned, America will not for ever offer Europe a blank cheque on defence. Yet the refusal of Nato member states to spend their share of money on their own defence is an invitation to military aggression.
We stand by as China continues its relentless expansion, threatening our allies in New Zealand and Australia with multibillion-pound ports and military installations.
BREATHTAKING FAILURE OF STRATEGIC THINKING
The intimidation of Taiwan, conversion of Pacific islands into aircraft carriers and ceaseless invasion of global technology have given China an irreversible edge in international power politics.
Trump was a chaotic commander-in-chief but his unpredictability kept Beijing, Moscow and North Korea on their toes. Biden, by comparison, is a ghost.
His forgetfulness — understandable for a man of his age — and tendency to fall UP the stairs to Air Force One have been noted by his enemies.
There is no quick-thinking repartee, just bewilderment — as yesterday, when the press pack began fighting in front of the two leaders.
Like Ronald Reagan in his last years, Mr Biden is unable to think on his feet. But Reagan, who was much smarter than Biden, was gunned down and nearly died before his mental powers declined.
Just six months after he became America’s 46th President, people are already looking at his possible successor, the super-ambitious Kamala Harris. And they have found her wanting.
The gaffe-prone VP has floundered since being handed responsibility for guarding America’s border with Mexico.
For the increasingly assertive Chinese-Russian axis, the West looks like a ripe plum ready to drop into its lap.