David J. Smith*
As US Vice President Joe Biden returned to Washington from his foray to Ukraine and Georgia, the first copies of a Wall Street Journal article that would plunge him into political controversy rolled off the presses. Biden told the Journal’s Peter Spiegel that Russia’s “withering” economy would force “some very difficult, calculated decisions.” He continued, “We [the United States] vastly underestimate the hand that we hold.” The Vice President’s refreshingly candid remarks are worth careful consideration, but the maelstrom that ensued had naught to do with that.
The Russians, Biden said, “Have a shrinking population base, they have a withering economy, they have a banking sector and structure that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years, they are in a situation where the world is changing before them and they’re clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable.”
Spiegel concludes, “Biden's remarks illustrate the extent to which the Obama Administration believes the balance of power is shifting toward Washington, giving the White House a new opening to leverage its strategic advantages to persuade Moscow to reduce Russia's nuclear arsenal, loosen its grip on emerging democracies on its border, and cooperate on Iran and North Korea.”
Moscow was perplexed, to use the word of Sergei Prikhodko, foreign policy adviser to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. “If some members of [US President Barack] Obama’s team,” Prikhodko continued, “disagree with the course of their president, we just need to know this.”
White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs rejoined, "Both President Obama and Vice President Biden believe that better relations are in our interest and that Russia will work to better relations because it's also in their interests.”
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went on television to massage bruised Russian egos. "We view Russia as a great power," she said on NBC’s Meet the Press. "Every country faces challenges,” Clinton continued, “We have our challenges; Russia has their challenges…The Russians know we have continuing questions about some of their policies and they have continuing questions about some of ours.” She rejected the idea that the Obama Administration believes it has any kind of advantage in US-Russian relations.
Such remarks are as silly as they are gracious.
A Wall Street Journal editorial commented on the political firestorm it had ignited. “Before the Obama Administration wipes away [Biden’s] supposed gaffe, we think he deserves support…Biden pointed out that the US and Russia aren’t strategic equals…Biden’s common sense observations undermine President Obama’s rationale for a ‘reset’ with Russia built on arms control and a softening of U.S. support for Eurasia’s democracies.”
That may overstate the case against Obama’s approach to Russia, but Biden stated the obvious—no one in Washington believes that Russia is a great power; no one in Moscow believes that anyone in Washington believes that.
Then why, the Journal asks, “lock in lower numbers of U.S. nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles such as bombers and missiles in a new arms deal if Russia can’t afford to maintain its stockpile of either? Why indulge Russia’s illusions about its ‘privileged interest’ in Eastern Europe by signaling a desire to abandon missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic, when as the Vice President notes, Moscow’s current regime lives ‘in the past’ and dreams of reclaiming the imperium? And what, precisely, does the U.S. expect to get in return for these concessions to a ‘withering’ partner?”
Furthermore, Biden’s remarks should not be accepted uncritically. Though true, was this the right moment to raise Russia’s underlying weakness? He even said, “It is never smart to embarrass an individual or a country when they’re dealing with significant loss of face.”
And are Biden’s conclusions based too much on western Cartesian logic? “I always assume that sooner or later, people, or countries are going to figure out their self-interest,” Biden said. “There’s a whole lot between Moscow and Washington that the Russians need…These guys are pretty pragmatic, in the end.” In the end, will the pragmatic self-interest of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin be the emollient for which Biden hopes?
Again, Biden apparently answered the question: “Does that mean they won’t do something stupid? No.”
Finally, to support an effective American foreign policy, Biden’s remarks must be fixed in space and time.
Russia is not a great world power, but it is a 500 kilogram gorilla along its border, where global weakness is already spurring it to aggressive tantrums. How should America handle these assaults, which are also blows against American geopolitical interests?
Timewise, Russia has always proved more resilient in power politics than western economic analyses indicated was possible. Today, Putin appears determined to repeat this Russian phenomenon.
So, in the long run, Biden may be correct. Meanwhile, America needs a Russia policy more coherent than Obama’s “reset” or Biden’s Wall Street Journal interview.
Published in Tbilisi 24 Saati, August 4, 2009
*David J. Smith is Director, Georgian Security Analysis Center, Tbilisi, and Senior Fellow, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Washington.