Vice President Biden’s Comments on U.S.-Russia Relations: Reset or Setback?

Q1: What did Vice President Joe Biden recently say about U.S.-Russian relations?

A1: At the end of his four-day trip to Ukraine and Georgia, Vice President Biden discussed why he thought the Obama administration’s attempt to reset U.S.-Russia relations was more likely to succeed than previous efforts to engage Moscow. Specifically, Biden cited Russia’s “withering” economy, shrinking population base, and unstable banking sector as the most important factors in prompting Moscow to reduce its vast nuclear arsenal in conjunction with Washington. Biden noted that these trends have contributed to a significant recalculation of Moscow’s self-interests, which has led Russia to make important concessions to the West on a broad range of national security issues. He further remarked that Russia currently finds itself clinging to its past status as a great power.

Q2: Why is this problematic?

A2: Vice President Biden’s comments are the most critical statements from a senior administration official to date vis-à-vis Russia, and they conflict with the message President Barack Obama took to Moscow just 10 days earlier when he proclaimed that the United States wants to see a “strong, peaceful, and prosperous Russia.” Although Biden’s analysis of Russian economic and demographic trends was largely on the mark, his prognosis of Russia’s inevitable cooperation is questionable at best. Because Moscow perceives a number of Western policies as a challenge to its great power status, Russia will be less likely to make concessions. Predictably, Biden’s comments infuriated senior officials in the Kremlin who are hypersensitive to perceived slights regarding their status as a world power. The vice president’s comments were highlighted on the front page of many Russian newspapers (interestingly, Biden’s comments may have received as much, if not more, publicity than President Obama’s visit to Moscow which was actively downplayed by the Kremlin) with Kremlin officials calling his criticism “perplexing” in light of the stated desire to “reset” relations. In a clear sign that the Obama administration is distancing itself from Biden’s comments, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has subsequently stated that the administration considers Russia to be a “great power”—a pronouncement that is likely to sound disingenuous to Kremlin ears.

Q3: What does all of this mean for future U.S.-Russia relations and their broader impact on transatlantic relations?

A3: Vice President Biden’s remarks may be a classic example of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Clearly, Biden’s comments now place the U.S. “reset” strategy at risk, ironically the very policy that the vice president himself laid out in February of this year during his first major foreign policy address in Europe. The much watched and analyzed U.S.-Russia summit in early July caused many to believe that President Obama was largely successful in his efforts to get the “reset” off to a good start as evidenced through the renewed vigor on relaunching the START process, improved military-to-military cooperation, and the enhanced cooperation to supply U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Two weeks after the U.S.-Russia summit, Biden was given the far more difficult and delicate task of assuring Ukraine and Georgia as well as other countries in the former Soviet space that decisions regarding their future orientation and direction lay completely in their hands—not Moscow’s—without disturbing the positive post-summit momentum. Biden nearly accomplished his mission were it not for his unfortunate post-trip interview. European capitals are following the dynamics of the U.S.-Russia relationship closely. While there was enthusiasm for progress made regarding the reduction of nuclear weapons, there is growing concern that neither the Europeans nor the United States have an effective Russia strategy. The vice president’s comments also underscore a lack of transatlantic consensus on how best to address the myriad of security, political, and economic challenges that Russia continues to pose to both Europe and the United States, such as Russia’s repeated shut off of natural gas supplies destined for Europe, its recognition of the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and blatant violation of signed cease-fire agreements, and lack of Russian support for enhanced measures to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. How Russia eventually reacts to Vice President Biden’s comments and other perceived Western slights—and in what form—may well constitute a substantial policy setback for both Europe and the United States.

Heather A. Conley directs the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Heather A. Conley