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Biden Remarks Anger Russian Officials

By Andre de Nesnera
Washington
13 August 2009

Recent statements by Vice President Joe Biden have angered Russian officials.

Vice President Biden recently told the Wall Street Journal that - in his words - the Russians "have a shrinking population base, have a withering economy, have a banking sector and structure that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years." He then suggested that all these trends would force Russia to make concessions to the West on key national security issues.

Mr. Biden made those statements following a trip to Ukraine and Georgia. Several weeks earlier, President Barack Obama held a Moscow summit with his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Medvedev - a meeting whose main goal was to reset U.S.-Russian relations on a positive footing.

Most analysts agree that was achieved. But they also say Mr. Biden's statements represented a different kind of tone from the one that was taken by Mr. Obama in Moscow.

Stephen Jones, a Russia expert from Mount Holyoke College (in Hadley, Massachusetts), says the vice president was in a sense writing off Russia as a significant power.

"Russia, of course, is going through a very serious economic situation. Its prospects are not good in terms of the demographic situation, and the energy situation too because Gazprom is very inefficient and oil production is declining. But Russia is still enormously powerful in the region. And when Russia has its back to the wall, it can certainly pursue some very strong, even aggressive policies at times. So that sort of statement, I think, is rather exaggerated and rather naïve in many ways," he said.

Vice President Biden's remarks hit a raw nerve with Russian officials. Sergei Prikhodko, a senior Kremlin foreign policy adviser, said "it raised the question who is shaping U.S. foreign policy -the president or members of his team?"

Robert Legvold at Columbia University, agrees. "It has raised a lot of questions both in the Russian media and even in the western media about whether the administration is singing from the same page. And if the page they are singing from is the same, and it is the Biden message - then are we hearing from Biden what they really think and from Obama what the diplomatic gloss is that he means to put on the relationship. That, I think, has created - at least for the moment - something of a problem," he said.

Ronald Suny, at the University of Chicago, says the Russians have a point. "The Russians are extremely sensitive. They are looking for signals. They don't know what to expect from this new government in Washington. And so they were very well pleased, it seemed, by Obama's visit. And then the [vice president's] trip comes and these statements are made - and the Russians are now upset again. And they are asking, in a way, what are the signals? Which signals are we to take to be the real signals? And I'm as much at a loss as they are," he said.

Shortly after the interview was published, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to head off a dispute with Moscow during an appearance on (NBC's) Meet the Press. "We want what the president called for during his recent Moscow summit. We want a strong, peaceful and prosperous Russia. Now there is an enormous amount of work to be done between the United States and Russia," he said.

Secretary Clinton said Moscow and Washington are working to reduce their nuclear arsenals - and are collaborating on the key issues of North Korea and Iran. "And so there is an enormous amount of hard work being done. And we view Russia as a great power," he said.

Some analysts say Mrs. Clinton's remarks were an attempt at damage control at a time when relations between Washington and Moscow are at a sensitive stage given the new U.S. administration and the issues facing both countries.



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