Talkin’ Joe Biden has me scratching my head once again. This time it’s the result of Biden “calling out” the Russians as weak sisters.
Specifically, in an interview following his visits to Ukraine and Georgia (the Ukraine girls really knocked him out), Biden opined that Russia’s economy is “withering.” He suggested, moreover, that this trend will force Russia 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. Biden added that Russia’s geographical proximity to the emerging nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea is also likely to make it Russia more cooperative with the U.S. in blocking their growth.
Never one for a poker face, Biden pronounced himself pleased with the “hand we hold” against Russians:
Russia has to make some very difficult, calculated decisions, They have a shrinking population base, they have a withering economy, they have a banking sector and structure that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years, they’re in a situation where the world is changing before them and they’re clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable.
Let it not be said, however, that Biden isn’t a tactical thinker. Recognizing that the Russia might not take kindly to being outed as a “paper bear,” Biden warned that Moscow could become more belligerent in the short term unless the U.S. continues to treat Russia as a major player on the international stage.
Thus, Biden has announced to the world that, although the U.S. considers Russia a basket case, it will pretend otherwise so Moscow doesn’t become angry.
President Obama took office vowing to abandon the “arrogance” of his predecessor’s foreign policy. He was particularly intent on hitting the “reset” button on relations with Russia.
These objectives seem difficult to reconcile with Biden’s triumphalism. What could be more arrogant than to taunt Russia by claiming that in its weakened condition, it will have no choice but to bow the our will. I can’t think of any instance in which President Bush spoke this way about a power with which he hoped to have semi-positive relations; indeed, I have difficultly even imagining the former president doing so.
What are we to make of Biden’s remarks. Perhaps it’s simply a case of Biden being Biden, i.e., speaking without thinking.
But there may be more to it. Ever since Obama took office, the U.S. has been, to speak bluntly, a punching bag. We have been ignored by North Korea, derided by Iran, and treated with indifference by Russia. Even Israel is finding it difficult to show Obama much respect.
Against this backdrop, it is understandable that Biden would be tempted to talk tough. He has been a punching bag for decades but, to his credit, never liked it. It’s even possible that the administration would approve of tough talk on the part of its designated loose cannon.
Finally, what about the merits of Biden’s derisory comments? As a long-term assessment of Russian prospects, Biden may be right. But roughly the same critique applied for decades to the Soviet Union and this did not prevent it from going toe-to-toe with the U.S. in the Cold War. Even towards the end, after Carter explained that we should not inordinately fear Communism (based on the same sort of considerations Biden cited), the Soviets launched an invasion of Afghanistan the effects of which arguably are still being felt today.
Biden, then, is correct that Russia may become more, not less, belligerent in the short term, and the short term might not be that short. One way to make this a self-fulfilling prophecy is to catalogue Russia’s alleged vulnerabilities in a public interview.