|Biden Says Weakened Russia Will Bend to U.S.|
By PETER SPIEGEL
WASHINGTON -- 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.
Mr. Biden said he believes Russia's economic problems are part of a series of developments that have contributed to a significant rethinking by Moscow of its international self-interest. The geographical proximity of the emerging nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea is also likely to make Russia more cooperative with the U.S. in blocking their growth, he said.
But in the interview, at the end of a four-day trip to Ukraine and Georgia, Mr. Biden said domestic troubles are the most important factor driving Russia's new global outlook. "I think we vastly underestimate the hand that we hold," he said.
"Russia has to make some very difficult, calculated decisions," Mr. Biden said. "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."
Mr. Biden's remarks were the most pointed to date by a senior administration official on why the Obama administration believes its "reset" with Russia is likely to succeed, while previous efforts to engage Moscow by the Clinton and Bush administrations ended with little progress.
The remarks also are among the administration's most critical of Russia's current role in the world, and come just weeks after President Barack Obama insisted that the U.S. seeks a "strong, peaceful and prosperous Russia" in an address at his high-profile July summit in Moscow with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
Natalya Timakova, a spokeswoman for Mr. Medvedev, declined to comment on Mr. Biden's remarks. Ms. Timakova acknowledged that the Russian government is currently looking at many of the issues he raised -- including economic challenges, the banking sector and the country's shrinking population.
Despite Russia's economic and geopolitical difficulties, Mr. Biden said, 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. He said Russian leaders are gradually beginning to grasp their diminished global role, but that the U.S. should be cautious not to overplay its advantage.
"It won't work if we go in and say: 'Hey, you need us, man; belly up to the bar and pay your dues,' " he said. "It is never smart to embarrass an individual or a country when they're dealing with significant loss of face. My dad used to put it another way: Never put another man in a corner where the only way out is over you."
Since the end of the Cold War, consecutive U.S. administrations have tried to re-engage with Moscow on a range of foreign-policy issues, in the belief that the two countries had increasingly common national-security interests. After initial charm offensives, however, both the Clinton and Bush administrations' efforts were stymied.
Mr. Biden's remarks illustrate the extent to which the Obama administration believes the balance of power is shifting toward Washington, giving the White House a new opening to leverage its strategic advantages to persuade Moscow to reduce Russia's nuclear arsenal, loosen its grip on emerging democracies on its border, and cooperate on Iran and North Korea.
"It's a very difficult thing to deal with, loss of empire," Mr. Biden said. "This country, Russia, is in a very different circumstance than it has been any time in the last 40 years, or longer."
Specifically, he said, economic troubles played a central role in Moscow's strong desire to restart nuclear-reduction talks. He noted that Russia can no longer afford to maintain an arsenal that, while much smaller than Cold War levels, is still one of the two largest in the world by far. "All of sudden, did they have an epiphany and say: 'Hey man, we don't want to threaten our neighbors?' No," Mr. Biden said. "They can't sustain it."
He also argued that Russia's domestic struggles have made it less able to influence events in its so-called near abroad -- the former Soviet republics that, to varying degrees, are seeking increased independence from Moscow.
Russia maintains thousands of troops in the northern Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and has shut off gas flows into Ukraine twice in the last three years. Despite such shows of power, Mr. Biden said, even a close Russian protectorate such as Belarus has shown signs of bucking Moscow recently.
Mr. Biden said Moscow's efforts to strong-arm former Soviet republics through use of its energy resources have backfired. He noted that Russia's running dispute with Ukraine has galvanized European efforts to build a new pipeline through Turkey and southern Europe, known as Nabucco, that would bypass Russia.
"Their actions relative to essentially blackmailing a country and a continent on natural gas, what did it produce?" he said. "You've now got an agreement that no one thought they could have."