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Biden's 'withering economy' comment roils relations with Moscow

July 27, 2009 | 10:31 am

Vice President Biden reviews military honor guard in Tbilisi during a visit July 2009

Vice President Joe Biden caused a dust-up in relations with Moscow the other day when he suggested that Russia had no choice but to accommodate to U.S. demands because its economy is "withering."

"Russia has to make some very difficult, calculated decisions," Biden told the Wall Street Journal at the end of a four-day trek to Russia and Ukraine. "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."

As a result, the vice president added, Russia will be forced to make concessions to the West on a host of national security issues, such as reducing nuclear weapons.

Oh, brother.

Maybe Biden was just saying publicly what others in the administration privately believe. But....

....even so, coming just a few weeks after President Obama traveled to Moscow to hit the "reset" button in U.S.-Russian relations, it's a bit, well, undiplomatic.

Sunday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton tried to minimize the damage, saying on "Meet the Press": "We view Russia as a great power" and noting, "Every country faces challenges."

Today, Russian newspapers gave front-page treatment to what one called Biden's "boorish openness, casting doubt on Washington's commitment to a new relationship with Moscow.

The newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets said Biden showed what the Obama administration really thinks about Russia.

"We should respond to the Yankees in the same way," the newspaper said belligerently. "Any other language, unfortunately or fortunately, they do not understand."

Some even saw a connection between Biden's remarks and his visits to Ukraine and Georgia, two former Soviet republics whose ties to the West make them suspect in Moscow. While there, Biden said that one year after Georgia's war with Russia, the United States "stands with" Georgia.

And, like good Kremlinologists, many commentators tried to divine a hidden rationale for the statement, as if it were deliberate. Sergei Rogov, director of the government-funded Institute for the USA and Canada, was quoted in the Kommersant newspaper as saying the interview was aimed in part at rebutting barbs in the U.S. media that Obama, during his talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, was too soft on Russia.

Biden was most likely outlining "Plan B," agreed Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister who wrote about the incident in the online The plan: If the Kremlin refuses to make concessions to the West, the White House will push Moscow to the sidelines of world politics, he argued.

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo Vice President Joe Bden reviews an honor guard during a welcoming ceremony in Tbilisi, Georgia, last week. Credit: Credit: David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters

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