Vice President Joe Biden said in an interview that Russia’s economy is “withering,” and suggested the trend will force the country to make accommodations to the West on a wide range of national-security issues, including loosening its grip on former Soviet republics and shrinking its vast nuclear arsenal. ~The Wall Street Journal
What may be most remarkable about this is that this is not being treated as one of Biden’s legendary gaffes, but rather as an appropriate and acceptable comment. As I was saying earlier this week, the administration must think that Russia’s relatively greater weakness at present will make it more compliant, but I never expected any of its top members to come out and say exactly that. Bizarrely, Biden was offering all of this as evidence in favor of why the “reset” was going to work. In other words, for Biden the “reset” has always meant Russian concessions and submission, and it will “work” because Russia lacks the means to do anything else. This is staggeringly wrong.
It seems likely that the “reset” will now blow up in Obama’s face. This is not because it was wrong to repair relations with Russia, and it is not because of some supposed Russian intransigence that made the exercise futile from the beginning. It will backfire because it is fundamentally deceitful, which the Russians will realize quickly enough. The point is not that deceit is not part of international relations (it is always there to some degree), but that no bilateral relationship was ever repaired and improved by one party deliberately misleading and taking advantage of the other. Worse than that, Biden has just revealed to all the world what the con is, so Medvedev will know right away that he is being played. These comments are sure to deepen distrust between our governments. Even if Biden’s analysis had been right, it would have “worked” only if Moscow had been allowed to save face and conceal its concessions behind a mask of generosity, and Biden has just made sure that every concession Russia could have made would be perceived as humiliation forced upon it by its economic and other woes.
Biden says that the U.S. is underestimating the strength of its own hand, but what he underestimates is how deeply Moscow resents U.S. interference in its neighborhood. Biden misunderstands that past Russian economic strength did not create Russian attitudes about its near-abroad and U.S. policies, nor did it foster the rising nationalism in the country. These things were stoked during the ’90s, during Russia’s last period of serious weakness, and merely received greater expression over the last eight or nine years. Most Russians saw the ’90s as a period when the West took full advantage of Russian weakness to their detriment; the appeal of Putinism was that it would make sure that this did not happen again. Biden is pledging to do the same thing to Russia that Clinton did in the ’90s: combine phony expressions of goodwill with pursuit of a consistently anti-Russian agenda.
Economically, Russia may be in very bad shape, but that is why there is much less chance that Medvedev will have the luxury of accommodation on security issues. Bush missed the opportunity to build a constructive relationship with Russia while times were good, and now there is much less room in which Medvedev can maneuver. Medvedev is not Yeltsin, and the Russians are not going to fall for the same ploy twice. Think about it: if you are governing a country with a weak economy, do you start abandoning what you regard as important national security interests or do you re-double your commitment to them to mask or compensate for that weakness? Biden should be able to realize that Moscow isn’t going to give up on its previous objections to U.S. policies on NATO and missile defense, because it sees these policies as provocative and unreasonable, and it isn’t going to agree to arms reductions while these other policies are being advanced. Moscow isn’t going to become any more alarmed by Iranian or North Korean nuclear programs than it is. In the event that Iran did acquire a bomb, it is not clear that Iran would ever use it in a first strike, and it is even less clear that Moscow would be one of its main targets. Thanks to its relations with both governments, Russia has less to fear from an Iranian or North Korean bomb than most states. Biden cites their “geographic proximity” as a reason why Russia should be more concerned, but Iran and North Korea haven’t moved in the last few years, so there’s no reason why Russia would be more worried about these programs now than they have been in the past.
More important, Russian state interests have not changed since last year, and there is nothing fundamentally new in the demographic and economic problems Biden cites. If these factors have not made Moscow yield on certain fronts before, they are not going to make Moscow more interested in yielding now. Indeed, inasmuch as the Russian government is an authoritarian populist one, relative Russian weakness is likely to make its government more unyielding, less tolerant of domestic dissent and more intent on pursuing its interests in its neighborhood than it has been in the past. There may still be opportunities for cooperation on a few things, such as supply routes for soldiers in Afghanistan, but so long as the U.S. extends its sphere of influence to Russia’s borders and insists that Russia must not wield any significant influence over its neighbors there is no way that Russia, weak or strong, will be interested in new proposals coming from Washington.
Biden actually says in the same interview, “It is never smart to embarrass an individual or a country when they’re dealing with significant loss of face.” So at least Biden acknowledges that he is behaving stupidly, since he has made clear that he and this administration have every intention of embarrassing Russia on a regular basis. Once we get to the substance of policy, we can see that the new administration remains closely tied to the bankrupt and failed Russia policy of the last twenty years, which is just what I assumed last year during the campaign. A genuine “reset” would have been very wise and desirable, but this was never the administration’s goal.