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Biden Time on Russia

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It was not the greatest speech and it was not the worst, but Vice President Joseph Biden’s declaration of principles on the U.S.-Russia relationship made during this weekend’s Munich security conference made clear that despite all the sabre rattling over the past weeks, the ball is now in Moscow’s court to show if they have any interest in “pressing the reset button” and start fresh with the new administration in Washington (read the transcript here).

In many ways, one could sense that the Americans are setting the stage for what may become severely diminished expectations for improvements in the relationship.  In a skillful manner, Biden presented Moscow with both an olive branch and Rooseveltian big stick, and etiher way, both seemed headed toward the maw of the Russian woodchipper. 

The olive branch was the unusually high level of rhetorical deference, as Biden’s speech seemed specifically tailored to soothe long-standing Russian concerns:

The United States rejects the notion that NATO’s gain is Russia’s loss, or that Russia’s strength is NATO’s weakness. The last few years have seen a dangerous drift in relations between Russia and the members of our Alliance.

It is time to press the reset button and to revisit the many areas where we can and should work together. Our Russian colleagues long ago warned about the rising threat from the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Today, NATO and Russia can and should cooperate to defeat this common enemy.

And then later came the candor of the big stick:


We will not agree with Russia on everything. For example, the United States will not recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. We will not recognize a sphere of influence. It will remain our view that sovereign states have the right to make their own decisions and choose their own alliances. (…)

We will continue to develop missile defenses to counter a growing Iranian capability, provided the technology is proven to work and cost effective.

Biden’s allusion to the proposed plans for anti-ballistic missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic were again reinforced in some interviews following the speech, and are obviously one of Russia’s currently dominating obsessions in relations with the United States (though there is plenty of discussion and debate that it’s just a distraction issue, just like the invention of NATO as a problem issue). 

The immediate Russian reaction to the Biden speech was “very positive.”  Deputy PM Sergei Ivanov held a private meeting with Biden afterward, and emerged in good spirits to tell the media that “the new Obama administration had sent a verystrong signal that it was willing to resume Russian-US dialogue on all issues of commoninterest.”  It seems like the Americans have so far made good on Obama’s promise during the inauguration speech to “extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”  But although the Russians welcomed these overtures, they have offered none in return.

On everyone’s mind of course was the increasingly hostile measures coming out of Moscow in the weeks leading up to the Munich conference, including the forced closure of the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan, new bases in Abkhazia, and air defense agreements with Belarus.  Quentin Peel at the FT describes the “double act” of soft-talking Dmitry Medvedev (who made a big show out of meeting with the editor of Novaya Gazeta) and bad cop Vladimir Putin, as combining to “throw down the gauntlet” to Washington before they have even heard what the new administration’s position on the relationship was going to be.

As such, it seems increasingly clear that Russia is not as interested in improving relations with the United States at this current juncture, and sees more benefit to the politics of confrontation given the rocky domestic situation caused by the crisis.  As social unrest increases in these days of plunging oil prices and ruble value, the Kremlin has shown itself to greatly concerned about its own potential vulnerability, and in such moments the hawkish elements within the Kremlin often take on controlling roles over policy.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t suggest that the U.S. administration is being completely naive with respect to the current conditions in Russia.  What else did anyone expect them to do with Russia, other than offer the obvious fresh start?  There were arguably not too many other viable options available for a brand new administration which is very eager to succeed no matter what in its first series of relations with foreign states in order to consolidate legislative authority of competence. 

However, the most saddening observation I am struck with is how once again this relationship has been defined by hard interests, and not by values – and I believe that it is precisely this approach which will continue to cause future difficulties in the relationship.  Despite campaigning on change, the Obama administration is approaching the Russia relationship from a very conservative angle, even using Henry Kissinger and other realists to work on the nuclear and weapons issues.  That is all fine and well, and we’re aware that Kissinger is liked and trusted by many in the Kremlin (his consultancy may have been employed by them at one point), but the early disinclination we are seeing by the Americans to mention issues of human rights and basic constitutional freedoms is discouraging.

Biden’s Munich speech carried a clear implication:  let’s just get down to business, sign some agreements, and give us a few easy trophies that may be symbolic of improved relations.  Gone is the lofty rhetoric from inauguration day, or even the moral outrage we could see during the presidential debates.  For now we can expect the foreign-policy-as-interests dialogue to dominate, and it is unlikely that high-ranking U.S. officials will mention names such as Stanislav Markelov or Mikhail Khodorkovsky during the next round of negotiations with their Russian counterparts.

These are thorny issues in the relationship to be sure, but ones that need to be addressed to move forward successfully.  There are many who particularly at this dire time in Russian historysee some light or opportunity given the economic situation to begin to address rule of law as theabsolute predicate for the bailout that Russia will require in the nextfew quarters. But the Biden speech did not reveal a hint of knowledge about this leverage, andwhile one applauds a willingness to be less unilateral on issues likenuclear arms, and while one applauds any speech where Russia is treatedwith respect, I would argue strenuously that boosting the heavy hand ofthe present leadership at this present moment is both bad timing andbad policy.

It is a blessing that we still have people like EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso, who are still at least keeping these issues in the dialogue despite the political effort, and the Americans would do well to learn from his example.

Photo:  US Vice President Joe Biden, left, meets with the Deputy Prime Minister of Russia Sergei Ivanov for bilateral talks during the International Conference on Security Policy, Sicherheitskonferenz, at a hotel in Munich, southern Germany, on Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009. (AP Photo by Frank Augstein)