U.S. Vice President Joe Biden Visits Moscow

 (This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines)

If a contest for the best smile was held among leading American politicians, Vice President Joe Biden would win hands down.  Last week, Biden’s trademark pearly whites and folksy manners were on display in Moscow during a three-part European trip that also included visits to Finland and Moldova.  It's likely, though, that Biden’s relaxed way of presenting himself didn’t fool his Russian hosts, who are well aware of his reputation of as a tough interlocutor and a foreign policy hawk.  

In Moscow, Biden met with President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin; visited the Moscow School of Management at Skolkovo where he spoke to U.S. and Russian business executives and presided over signing of a $1.6 billion business deal between Aeroflot and Boeing.  He also met with Russian human rights and political activists and, finally, gave a speech at Moscow State University.    

The status of Biden’s visit – marked as “working” – precluded the issuing of a formal statement or a briefing for the press, so it is possible only to speculate which topics dominated Biden’s talks with the Russian leadership.

According to Biden himself – a point he made in an interview on the eve of the trip and then repeated at the meeting with business leaders at Skolkovo – the primary purpose of his visit was to boost U.S.-Russia economic relations.  To this end, on every occasion, Biden emphasized the Obama’s administration support for Russia’s accession to the WTO.  As if tacitly acknowledging that this process could be effectively vetoed by Georgia, Biden enigmatically noted that the U.S. “is working with other countries” to make Russia’s accession happen.

Yet, vice president’s insistence that his visit was all the WTO and bilateral trade rings a bit hollow.  Biden is the most trustful confidant of President Obama and the person the president always puts in charge of the most important issue du jour.  Recently, Biden became the administration’s point person for negotiations over the budget impasse.  With a showdown looming between congressional Democrats and Republicans over the budget issue, the question all over Capitol Hill was: “Where is Biden?”  

Biden was in Moscow.  And what exactly was he doing there?  Reiterating again American support for Russia’s membership in the WTO?  Repeating, for the umpteenth time, the administration’s promise to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment — which the current Congress will refuse to do anyway?  Listening to the never-ending whining of Russian human rights activists and “opposition leaders”?  For all that, Obama could have sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, giving her a much-needed break from relentless efforts to unseat the Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi.    

Certainly if Obama has chosen his vice president to converse with the top Russian leaders, then the topic of this conversation was the most important issue in U.S.-Russia relations.  Today, such an issue is not the WTO or bilateral trade – with all due appreciation of the long-term importance of both – but, rather, the issue of missile defense. 

The pressure is building on the Obama administration to move into the post-New START era.  In the resolution ratifying the treaty, U.S. Senate instructed the president to initiate, within a year, U.S.-Russia talks on cutting arsenals of tactical nuclear weapons, where Russia has a substantial numeric advantage.  So far, Russia has flatly refused this idea, arguing that the topic of tactical nuclear weapons can only be discussed in coordination with other arms control issues.  Among those, missile defense is by far the most complex and controversial, and the clock is ticking: some contours of the potential agreement should emerge by June 2011, when the pivotal Russia-NATO meeting is to take place.

As one of the principal architects – and the godfather – of “reset” Biden was sent to Moscow to give his godchild a new life: to find a solution that could bridge the two countries’ very different positions on missile defense, a solution that will be fully supported by the next president of Russia, whoever he might be.  For his part, the vice president could promise his Moscow partners that if Obama gets re-elected in 2012, Biden, too, will be around for the next four years – shepherding “reset” through adolescence.  And then Russia will have another chance to enjoy his smile.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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10 Responses to U.S. Vice President Joe Biden Visits Moscow

  1. Mark says:

    Georgia and Russia are at a stalemate here – Georgia can ruin Russia’s plans to get accepted to the WTO, but Russia can block Georgia from acceptance into NATO as long as it has unresolved boundary disputes, which it has in the form of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Of the two, Russia would be better served to forget the WTO and continue to block Georgia’s NATO aspirations, because as soon as Georgia is in NATO, plans will be announced to host an American airbase. Saakashvili has long let it be known he’d welcome one; similarly, once in NATO, Saakashvili would feel a lot more confident trying again to bring the two “rebel” provinces back into the Georgian fold, because NATO would hold his coat for him. They’d have little choice.
    In this instance, Russia would be better off to form a trade union with China, or perhaps South Korea if they were interested. The WTO would be a feather in Medvedev and Putin’s caps, but there has been no reason to keep Russia out for a long time now, and the continued stonewalling is plainly because it’s just too juicy a humiliation to relinquish.
    Hillary Clinton would be a bad fit for this trip, because of her schoolgirl crush on Saakashvili. I’m sure Russians haven’t forgotten the image of her swilling bubbly with Saakashvili as they toasted his reelection, and she’s so fixated now on appearing hawkish that she probably brings dead mice for lunch.
    As far as toppling Gaddafi goes, I read that it is mostly the USA that is brushing aside calls for a no-fly zone (and while we’re on the subject, if the Arab League is so in favor of it, why the hell can’t they define and enforce one on their own?), while busily working out ways they can funnel the cash they stole from Gadaffi – by freezing his assets – to the “rebels”.

  2. Igor says:

    Hi, Eugene
    A good post & the “right” angle (IMHO)- I also believe that the missiles are comparatively more important at this stage. Cf. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/03/11/reset_20_0
    PS Were you referring to that good old Russian joke: “а где же Ленин?” ” А Ленин в Польше”..if so – very fitting.

  3. Poppy says:

    What Georgia?

  4. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks Mark,
    A good deal of great points.
    I think that Georgia’s membership in NATO is dead for very long time (as former scientist, I simply hate using the term “forever”:). And Russia has no reason to thank Obama for that — all thanks must go Merkel and Sarkozy. So I see no WTO-NATO quid pro quo here, at least vis-a-vis the US.
    The WTO is a different story. It’s silly to discuss whether “Russia” needs the WTO. As they say, there is Russia and there is Russia. Higher-tech business wants the membership, and its representatives seem to gravitate towards Medvedev. On the other hand, there is a firce opposition to the WTO, with agribusiness in the lead — and their lobbyists seem to have good access to Putin. So, it’s like NAFTA in the US: some love it, some hate it.
    As for HRC, I simply tried to be sarcastic. However, I still insist that Biden was sent not by accident. Gates will be gone soon; HRC will be gone by 2013; Tom Donilon is nobody for now. It’s only Biden who matters and who can say he’ll be around come 2013 — if Obama, of course, gets re-elected (which now seems increasingly likely every passing day of Republican self-destruction.)

  5. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Hi Igor,
    “Ленин в Польше” is among my favorites…
    But seriously, many Democrats in Congress were very unhappy with Biden’s absence. They complain that Obama is MIA as far as the budget battle is concerned. They were partially pleased with the fact that Obama at least appointed Biden to deal with the issue. And then, Biden went on the European trip…

  6. Mark says:

    Hi, Eugene;
    I think you’re probably right that Georgia’s acceptance into NATO is on the back burner for now, and the construction of new U.S. bases elsewhere in the region is likely a reflection of that. However, it would be a mistake to underestimate the will of the USA, and officially the USA (at least, conservative elements thereof) would very much like both Georgia and Ukraine to be full members. Ukraine, of course, has undergone a considerable reduction of its interest in being part of NATO under Yanukovich, and Saakashvili threw a spanner into the NATO plans for Georgia with his precipitate military action, making many members nervous that they might in the not-too-distant future be dragged into a war with Russia on his behalf. But it’s certainly not a dead issue, and every time a senior American or NATO diplomat visits Georgia the western press begins to buzz again about Georgia and NATO.
    I’d agree the WTO needs Russia more than the other way round – but WTO membership remains more important for Russia than perhaps most Russians realize. WTO integration could not happen without Russia adopting a number of badly-needed market reforms, which would vastly boost its appeal to Foreign Direct Investment. Right now, as I’ve mentioned before, many of Russia’s business traditions and rules are outdated and clumsy, and sometimes contradict each other. A serious sorting-out of what rules need to be modernized is long overdue, but it’s not likely to happen unless the forced joining of Russia to western markets makes Russia unable to compete without modernizing. I believe it would be a lot less painful than many think, and it will be to Russia’s benefit if it truly wishes to realize its potential.

  7. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Hi Mark,
    I totally agree with you on both points. We simply refer to different parts of US and Russian elites.
    Sure, there are people in the US — like McCain — who would drag Georgia in NATO today no matter what. Even in Obama’s own administration, there is someone (of course, I mean HER) who is all for Georgia in NATO. I don’t know Obama’s own — not official, which is “for” — position on the subject. I suspect that he’d prefer good relation with Russia to having Georgia as the member, whose membership would be useless and even, as you correctly say, potentially dangerous. But again, my point is that Obama even doesn’t have to fight anyone — by voicing his potential “against” position — because the case is moot thanks to Germany and France.
    The same for the WTO. Sure, I totally agree with you that Russia would benefit from the WTO. But tell this to the people who make money on oil. Do they need market reforms and FDI? Nope. Moreover, Russia’s WTO membership may complicate their shady business deals. And, I suspect, their lobby — thanks to Khodorkovsky! — is still stronger than that of market reformers.

  8. Igor says:

    Eugene & Mark & WTO
    WTO membership will reduce Russia’s ability to protect her underdeveloped industries . Which means there will be actually pressure “to produce what it can produce best” (to quote someone). Which will be export of raw resources & no “modernization”. Of the “benefits” I can see only import of, perhaps, cheap pineapples.

  9. Eugene Ivanov says:

    That’s pretty much my point too. Russia’s agribusiness and automobile industry are expected to be hit the hardest upon accession to the WTO. Both actively lobby against WTO.
    That said, there are businesses that want the membership, because they believe that their expansion outside Russia is being blocked for political reasons, which the WTO is supposed to overcome. People representing these businesses are apparently having Medvedev’s ear. Hence the active pursuit of the WTO during Medvedev’s presidency. On the contrary, 8 years of Putin’s presidency have been largely wasted for this purpose.

  10. The post is very intellectually written, with lots of valuable information

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