Is Putin "rational actor"? — Jake Tapper asks Biden. Biden answers "he is a rational actor... I just think it’s irrational."
You have to separate the "he" and the "it" to make sense of it.
Tapper: So, French President Macron told me that he doesn’t think that Putin is acting rationally. And he said that he thinks a lot of this is because of how isolated Putin was for two years during the pandemic. And others who have dealt with him, Condi Rice and Bob Gates and James Clapper have used words like erratic and unhinged to describe Putin’s behavior today. Do you think Putin is a rational actor?
Biden: I think he is a rational actor who has miscalculated significantly. I think he thought… You may recall, I pointed out that they were going to invade, that all those hundred thousand were troops there, and no one believed that he was going to invade Ukraine. You listen to what he says, if you listen to the speech he made after, when that decision was being made, he talked about the whole idea of he needed to be the leader of Russia that united all of the Russian speaker… I just think it’s irrational.
So, according to Biden, Putin is rational, but he came up with an idea that happened to be irrational. The idea, as put by Biden, was that Russian speakers should be united under one leader. To call that irrational is to set a low threshold for what counts as irrational, so then why isn't Putin irrational? Presumably, it's just not pragmatic to reject the person when you need him to listen to you. Impugning his idea is a better move.
But Tapper didn't notice this move:
Tapper: So if he’s not rational and...
Biden: No, I didn’t say he’s not rational.
Tapper: You said the speech is [not rational].
Biden: I think the speech, his objectives were not… Jake, I think he thought he was going to be welcome with open arms, that this has been the home of Mother Russia and Kyiv, and therefore he was going to be welcomed. And I think he just totally miscalculated it.
Tapper: So, you talked about this a few days ago, the search for an off-ramp for him, because his back is against the wall, there are questions about how rational he is. He already was a brutal dictator. What is the off-ramp? Is there any acceptable way that he can leave, in his mind, without seizing territory in a way that would not be acceptable to Ukraine?
Biden: I don’t know what’s in his mind, but clearly he could leave. He could just flat leave and still probably hold his position together in Russia. The idea that he’s been able to convince the Russian people that this is something that he thought made sense, but now he’s accomplished what he wanted to do and it’s time to bring Russians home....
Tapper: When people hear the word Armageddon, they get scared, used by a US president, they get scared. Do you think in any way discussing this type of thing publicly, openly, Putin’s possible use of nuclear weapons might have the opposite effect of what you want? It might make some of our wobblier European allies be even more scared of confronting Putin?
Biden: Well, no, I don’t think so at all. I think, look, it was a directed… What I’m talking about, I’m talking to Putin. He in fact cannot continue with impunity, to talk about the use of a tactical nuclear weapon as if that’s a rational thing to do. The mistakes get made and the miscalculation could occur. No one can be sure what would happen, and it could end in Armageddon.
Tapper: And you still are afraid of that though, that it could?
Biden: Well, no, I don’t think any rational person is saying the initial use of a nuclear weapon killing thousands of people does not have the prospect of leading to something that can be way out of control....
He said "no," but you can see in context that he answered Tapper's question "yes." He is warning that if Putin uses a tactical nuclear weapon, we might end up in a full-scale nuclear war.
Was it rational of Biden to speak about nuclear war like that — calling it "Armageddon" and saying "mistakes get made" and you never know what would happen?