Vice President Joe Biden’s latest public remarks regarding US-Russian relations leave one wondering whether his tutor in matters diplomatic is none other than Dick Cheney.
What is going on here? Just two weeks after a successful summit between Obama, Medvedev, and Putin, Biden launches into a Cold War-style attack on Russia. Upon his return the other day from visits to Ukraine and Georgia—sore places in relations between Moscow and Washington—Biden lectured Russia in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. “Russia has to make some very difficult, calculated decisions,” according to Biden. “They 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’re in a situation where the world is changing before them and they’re clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable.”
Sounds as if he might’ve been speaking of the United States (minus the shrinking population). The Russian response? Sergei Prikhodko, Medvedev’s top foreign policy advisor, asked “Who is shaping the U.S. foreign policy, the president or respectable members of his team?” Prikhodko claims US-Russia relations had improved since the summit. That had been most everyone elses’ view as well, until Biden decided to cut loose.
“It’s a very difficult thing to deal with, loss of empire,” said Biden. “Russia is in a very different circumstance than it has been any time in the last 40 years, or longer.” Ouch. There’s value in publicly rubbing Russian noses in their decline? Let’s hope the Chinese are kinder to the US in coming decades.
Medvedev and Putin were interested in cutting Russia’s nuclear arsenal, according to Biden, because they can no longer afford its maintenance. “All of [a] sudden, did they have an epiphany and say: ‘Hey man, we don’t want to threaten our neighbors?’ No,” Biden continued, “they can’t sustain it.”
Biden must have missed Gorbachev’s glasnost, perestroika and ‘new thinking’ during the eighties—the greatest foreign policy epiphany of all time. Then there’s the little matter of the START I Agreement (signed in 1991) to which the latest treaty is the successor. Russian desire to reduce its strategic nuclear arms is not new.
Again, to whom is Biden listening? The RNC? Rush Limbaugh? John Bolton? Nukes are cheap to build and maintain compared to conventional forces. Why do Russian but not US weapons threaten others? Because red-white-and-blue nukes are for deterrence only? Why care whether Iran or North Korea has nukes? Surely those might be for deterrence too? Especially considering what happened to non-nuclear Iraq?
Biden thinks the US can easily get its way with the Russians: “I think we vastly underestimate the hand that we hold.” But at the same time, according to the WSJ’s Peter Spiegel, Biden “said Russian leaders are gradually beginning to grasp their diminished global role, but that the U.S. should be cautious not to overplay its advantage.”
“It won’t work if we go in and say: ‘Hey, you need us, man; belly up to the bar and pay your dues,’” he said. “It is never smart to embarrass an individual or a country when they’re dealing with significant loss of face. My dad used to put it another way: Never put another man in a corner where the only way out is over you.” But, if I read the mangled metaphor correctly, this seems to be where Biden is putting Russia.
Biden apparently assumes that the current Russian difficulties will endure unabated. Does he doubt that oil and gas prices will again set records? When (not if) this happens, the Russian treasury will again overflow.
The White House slapped Biden down after his remarkable recent statement that it was up to Israel, not the UN or international law, as to whether it would launch an unprovoked and premeditated attack on Iran.
The response from press secretary Robert Gibbs was less sharp this time but still must have rankled the Vice President: “The president and vice president believe Russia will work with us not out of weakness but out of national interest.” “The president,” Gibbs continued, “said in Moscow that the United States seeks a strong, peaceful and prosperous Russia — one that will be an even more effective partner in meeting common challenges, including reducing nuclear arsenals, securing vulnerable nuclear materials, contending with nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran, defeating violent extremism and advancing global security and economic growth.”
Andrew Kramer’s report in the New York Times on the Russian response to Biden’s latest Cheney-like performance gave Prikhodko the last word: “After noting the ambiguity of who was shaping policy for the administration, the president or his deputy, Mr. Prikhodko said, ‘We have been there already.’” Biden should stick to mismanaging the stimulus. Would someone please take his passport away?
STEVE BREYMAN teaches at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He is author of Why Movements Matter: the West German Peace Movement and US Arms Control Policy. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.