The Russians, and particularly Putin, took away a different lesson than the West did. The West assumed that economic dysfunction caused the Soviet Union to fail. Putin and his colleagues took away the idea that it was the attempt to repair economic dysfunction through wholesale reforms that caused Russia to fail. From Putin’s point of view, economic well-being and national power do not necessarily work in tandem where Russia is concerned. ~George Friedman

Friedman’s article reinforces my view that Biden’s recent statements in last week’s WSJ interview were not only foolish things to say publicly, but were basically flawed in their analysis of Russia’s response to its economic and other problems. Biden’s mistake in underestimating Russian strength because of their economic woes is the same one he was making when he told the Georgian parliament that Georgia could win back its separatist enclaves by building a prosperous model state: he evidently believes that political strength flows from economic strength and from no other source. As Friedman argues, this is not necessarily true of Russia. In any case, it fails to account for relative disparities of power between Russia and most of its neighbors, including most of Europe.

Friedman makes another important point, which is that Russian demographic decline will take a generation to lead to the kind of political weakness Biden is counting on. Biden and Obama are setting policy in 2009 that only makes sense in 2029 or later, assuming that the decline trend continues, or it is almost as if they still think it is 1999 and the U.S. may do whatever it likes in Russia’s vicinity. In the meantime, they are ensuring deepening distrust and antagonism from the one major power the U.S. needs as a regular ally. The administration has tended to approach foreign policy issues with very short-term thinking. I think we will find that their handling of Russia, while consistent with the last twenty years of U.S. policy and couched in all of this rhetoric about Russia’s long-term decline, is founded on an immediate perception of Russian weakness in the wake of the financial crisis and collapse of oil prices, which is not likely to be true of Russia in the next three or seven years. Russia may be declining over the long term, but in the present its exceptional weakness is a passing phase. We will probably never again see the $20 or $10/barrel oil prices of the ’90s that made Russia incapable of doing anything on the international stage.

As the global economy recovers, demand for oil will rise, and so will Russian oil revenues, which means that the unusually poor state of the Russian economy will not last for most of the rest of Obama’s time in office. While it is true that resource-rich state economies are fundamentally weak and too dependent on the export of a few commodities, they thrive in times of economic expansion, and the administration certainly has to be hoping for its own sake that global recession comes to an end. If Washington sets out to antagonize and provoke Russia during one of these periods of greater weakness, it will have no markers to call in when the economy recovers and when Russia is in a secure enough position to be willing to make certain concessions on negotiable issues.

What the administration does not grasp at all, as its predecessors have never understood, is that Moscow regards its influence over its near-abroad to be as non-negotiable as our government regards its influence in the Western Hemisphere. Short of total regime collapse, there are probably no conditions under which Moscow will tolerate further NATO expansion.