Be that as it may, experts expect the Biden flap to blow over and not derail the Obama administration’s “reset” strategy. “In the long term this will pass,” Charap said. “I don’t think it reflected the administration’s thinking, it was just the words of a tired Vice President.” The U.S. and Russia “are moving to manage disagreements, agreeing to disagree, and not let things spiral out of control.”
It is understandable that Biden’s most provocative statements in the WSJ interview have captured most of the attention in the last week, but I think the experts Scoblete consulted are being all together too optimistic in their analysis. Were Biden’s interview an isolated incident, the Kremlin could laugh it off as an unfortunate mistake and leave it at that, but it came on the heels of a visit to two governments Moscow views as irritants at best and antagonists at worst and followed numerous public statements stressing American solidarity with Ukraine and Georgia. If rhetorically rubbing salt in the wound of diminished geopolitical status during an interview generated so much outrage in the Russian government, what do we think would be the Russian view of displays of support for Ukrainian and Georgian membership in NATO during formal state visits? Such membership is something that would be a very concrete expression of the diminution of Russian power if it ever happened, and it is something that we know Russia furiously opposes. If merely mentioning Russia’s diminished status angers them, how much worse is it to take high-profile policy positions that try to take advantage of that diminished status while visiting states that border on Russia?
Whatever the outcome, the Biden flap underscores the diplomatic minefield that the Obama administration is waltzing on: showing respect for Russia’s interests without appearing to concede a Russian “sphere of influence” over former Soviet territories.
This is right as far as it goes, but why does the minefield exist? It exists because we insist on defining their lack of a “sphere of influence” in terms of the expansion of our own to their borders. The issue is not just that the former Soviet republics are not aligning themselves with Russia, but that they are explicitly aligning themselves against it alongside the superpower. If the tables were turned, it would be as if the U.S. were forbidden from wielding influence over the Caribbean and Central America while the Russians insisted that Cuba and Mexico be permitted to join a military alliance organized to defend against American imperialism. Then imagine that Russia and its allies around the world portrayed the routine exercise of regional power that most Americans take for granted as insidious aggression and sought to penalize America for doing what Russia does as a matter of course in its neighborhood. There would be a much less hazardous diplomatic minefield if we did not insist on having our maximal demands for projecting our power and influence met as the sine qua non of any relationship and simultaneously portray another great power’s natural exercise of regional hegemony as something perfidious and evil. This is the fundamental problem in the U.S.-Russian relationship, which means that it was what Biden said during his visits to Ukraine and Georgia, and not what he said during his interview afterwards, that mattered and reflected administration policy.