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Opinion: Is Putin serious about preferring Biden? Ask Fidel Castro

Opinion by Frida Ghitis

(CNN) — Russian President Vladimir Putin fired off a few intriguing statements during a Wednesday television interview with loyal journalist Pavel Zarubin. Among them was his claim that he would prefer that President Joe Biden win the 2024 US presidential election.

The remarks brought to mind a long night I spent in Havana, Cuba, listening to Fidel Castro pontificate for endless hours about every topic under the long-faded sun. That was just ahead of the 2000 US election, when then-Vice President Al Gore squared off against then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

I asked Castro if there was a candidate he hoped would become the next president of the US. He laughed for a moment and told me that he most certainly did have a preference. But then he explained that he would not tell me because, if Fidel said who he preferred, it would only hurt his candidate.

Was Putin’s answer based on the same calculation?

In his interview with Zarubin, Putin argued that Biden would be a better fit for Russia “because he is a more experienced person, he is predictable [and] he is a politician of an old formation.” The statement is consistent with other comments Putin has made about the current president. After his first summit in Geneva with Biden as president, back in 2021, Putin sounded a similar note. “He’s a balanced and professional man, and it’s clear that he’s very experienced,” Putin said. “It seems to me that we did speak the same language.”

Deciphering Putin and his motives is a constant challenge. The former KGB agent is known for playing all manner of mind games. Remember when he met with former German Chancellor Angela Merkel and, knowing her fear of dogs, unleashed his giant black Labrador, to Merkel’s bravely-dissimulated terror. He looked supremely satisfied.

In this latest interview, Putin also had some choice comments about another so-called interview — more of a propaganda event — conducted last week by the disgraced former Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Carlson was lambasted in the US and Europe not only for his softball interview and his failure to offer even the faintest pushback against Putin’s barrage of falsehoods, but also because he somehow avoided asking question about any of the controversies surrounding a Russian leader who has been formally charged with war crimes.

If Americans were not pleased, perhaps Carlson expected Putin to be impressed. But on Wednesday, the Russian president was contemptuous. “I honestly thought [Carlson] would be aggressive and ask tough questions.” Putin said he was prepared for that and was hoping for it because “it would give me the opportunity to give tough answers back.” But Carlson “chose a different tactic.” Putin added that he “didn’t fully enjoy” the interview.

Putin’s psychological games were on display when he sat down with Carlson. At one point, Putin ridiculed him, grinning sarcastically as he noted that Carlson tried to join but was rejected by the CIA. Perhaps he was signaling that he had done some background checking on his interviewer; maybe he was trying to throw him off balance. Whatever it was, Carlson looked dumbfounded, while Putin appeared delighted.

Whether the Russian president would rather have Biden — who has arrayed a mighty coalition to push back against Russia in its war against Ukraine and has called Putin a war criminal — or former President Donald Trump, who gushes with praise about the Russian leader and just said he would tell Russia to do “whatever the hell they want” to any NATO allies who don’t spend enough on defense, doesn’t seem very hard to decipher.

Castro didn’t say because he didn’t want to jinx his preferred candidate. Putin may be trying to jinx the one he wants to lose.

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