MOSCOW (NY Times)—Just weeks after a summit meeting intended to show a thawing in relations between the United States and Russia, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. made blistering references to Russia’s failing economy, loss of face and a leadership that is “clinging to something in the past,” in an interview published on Saturday.
Speaking on the heels of his trip to Georgia and Ukraine, Biden said flatly that the Obama administration would make no deals and accept no compromises with the Kremlin in exchange for better relations.
Russia itself, he said, should find it in its own interest to repair relations.
The Kremlin immediately responded to the comments, made in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, with a demand for a clarification of the administration’s intentions toward Russia, saying essentially that it was receiving a mixed message so soon after President Obama had visited Moscow for the summit meeting.
Calling the criticism “perplexing” in light of the diplomatic overtures initiated by the United States and described as “pressing the reset button,” the chief foreign policy adviser to President Dmitri A. Medvedev told the Interfax news agency, “The question is: who is shaping the U.S. foreign policy, the president or respectable members of his team?”
The adviser, Sergei Prikhodko, said the atmosphere between the countries had improved since Obama’s visit early this month.
“If some members of Obama’s team and government do not like this atmosphere, why don’t they say so?” Interfax reported him as saying. “If they disagree with the course of their president, we just need to know this.”
In the interview, Biden set aside diplomatic finesse and offered an unflinching analysis of the state of affairs in Russia.
With falling oil prices, a corruption-ridden banking system and failing courts, Russia has seen the steepest swing from growth to recession of any major economy in the financial crisis.
Biden has a reputation for speaking volubly, and sometimes going beyond official policy. It was not immediately clear if he was sending an officially sanctioned message.
The White House did not back away from the vice president’s remarks on Saturday, but attempted to smooth over the frayed relations with Russia.
“The president and vice president believe Russia will work with us not out of weakness but out of national interest,” Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said in a statement on Saturday night.
“The president said in Moscow that the United States seeks a strong, peaceful and prosperous Russia — one that will be an even more effective partner in meeting common challenges, including reducing nuclear arsenals, securing vulnerable nuclear materials, contending with nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran, defeating violent extremism and advancing global security and economic growth,” Gibbs said.
Biden spoke after visits to Ukraine and Georgia intended to reassure those countries that American support for their independence would not be weakened by the administration’s efforts to improve ties with Russia.
“The reality is the Russians are where they are,” Biden told The Wall Street Journal, according to excerpts posted on the newspaper’s Web site. “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.”
Biden rejected recent Russian assertions of a restored sphere of privileged interests in the former Soviet Union, made after the war in Georgia.
In the most frank discussion yet on Russian expectations of the new diplomatic exchanges, Biden said the Russians anticipated that the United States would enter into diplomatic bargaining.
Biden said: “They think we’ll be duplicitous and say, ‘Yeah, O.K., we got it. We’ll make a deal with you on something else we need in return.’ ”
He referred to the absence of strong American criticism of Russian military operations against separatists in the republic of Chechnya. “Some argued the last administration made a deal on Chechnya in return for no response on Iraq,” he said. “We’re not going to do that. It’s not necessary to do that.”
The Russian retort had its own reference to the previous administration, albeit an oblique one.
After noting the ambiguity of who was shaping policy for the administration, the president or his deputy, Prikhodko said, “We have been there already.”