They shouldn't have. Far from coming out of the blue, being out of step, or off message as some observers have suggested, Biden's remarks actually fit into a pattern that has emerged over the past month as the White House tweaks its Russia policy in response to the Kremlin's recent behavior.
Call it a reset of the reset.
Washington's rhetoric toward Moscow has taken a considerably sharper turn since mid-June when Moscow vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution, co-sponsored by the United States, that would have extended the UN mandate in Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia region. The vote was 10-1 in favor of extending the mandate, with Russia standing alone and isolated.
Shortly after that veto, President Barack Obama sparked a mini-controversy on the eve of his visit to Moscow when, in an interview with the Associated Press, he praised his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev -- but added that Russia Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has "one foot in the old ways of doing business."
As I wrote at the time, Obama appeared to be trying to drive a wedge through the Russian elite, which is deeply divided between factions drawing diametrically opposed lessons from the mushrooming economic crisis. The technocrats surrounding Medvedev favor economic reform, decentralization, and liberalization. The "siloviki" close to Putin want to dig in their heels and preserve the status quo.
Now let's look at Biden's controversial comments to the Wall Street Journal's Peter Spiegel, made after his four-day visit to Kyiv and Tbilisi, in which he suggests that Russia's weakening economy will cause it to eventually become more pliant in foreign affairs.
Biden said "Russia has to make some very difficult, calculated decisions" and that Washington "vastly" underestimates its hand vis-à-vis the Kremlin:
Biden went on to say that the Russian leaders "aren't absolute average-intellect ideologues who are clinging to something nobody believes in. They're pretty pragmatic in the end."
Biden's remarks, seen in their proper context, seem to be a continuation of the message Obama sent before his departure for Moscow. In each case, the administration was appealing to the relatively progressive part of the Moscow elite (and in the Russian elite, progressive is always a very relative term) and sending a warning to the more retrograde elements.
Moreover, Biden was characteristically blunt in his remarks about Russia during his entire visit Ukraine and Georgia last week. He reiterated U.S. support for both country's NATO bids, said Washington would never recognize breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, and called on Russia to honor last August's ceasefire agreement and withdraw its forces from Georgian territory.
But Reset 2.0 goes beyond mere rhetoric.
Senior Georgian officials have told RFE/RL that behind the scenes in Moscow, Obama warned Medvedev and Putin in no uncertain terms against starting a new war with Georgia.
The officials said Tbilisi was informed by U.S. officials that Obama told Russia's leaders that any attack against Georgia would have "grave consequences" and that Washington "would not stand aside" in such a conflict as it did during last year's war.
A White House spokesperson declined comment on the claim (but did not deny it), saying only "we don't discuss private conversations."
Administration officials also say that Washington would consider deploying U.S. monitors to join a European Union mission observing the de facto boundaries with Abkhazia and South Ossetia if the EU agrees to this. Georgia has been pressing hard for U.S. monitors, arguing correctly that their presence on the border would have an added deterrent effect against any fresh Russian incursion.
So Washington is ratcheting up the pressure on Moscow in words and in deeds, even as it talks about a new era of cooperation. Will it work?
In a compelling and well-argued piece in Stratfor.com, George Friedman writes that "the Russians certainly now understand what it means to hit the reset button Obama has referred to: The reset is back to the 1980s and 1990s" when a weak economy limited Moscow's foreign policy options.
In today's context, Eastern Europe means Georgia and Ukraine.
But Friedman warns that the 1980s and 1990s, when Moscow's economic woes led to geopolitical weakness, were actually an exception. Historically, Russia has been able to "decouple" its economy, which has been weak for most of its history, from its military capabilities. It has done so by squeezing its population economically, depriving it is basic comforts to divert resources to the military, and by brutally oppressing political dissent, and Friedman argues that it could do so again:
Friedman's argument is solid. But I think that what worked in the past may be quite problematic for Russia to pull off today.
For the past decade, Russians have willingly sacrificed political rights in exchange for rising living standards -- that has been Putin's vaunted social contract, his grand bargain. And as a result, Russians now expect rising prosperity.
Today's Russians are not the Russians of the 1930s or even the 1970s. Now that a wide section of the population has experienced a decade of growth, tt is far from certain that they would accept economic deprivation together with political repression anymore -- at least without serious and destabilizing social unrest. And if the Kremlin elite understands this, then they also understand that the only alternative is reform and accommodation with the West.
This is apparently what the administration is counting on.
Moscow has shown no signs of mellowing just yet. In fact, as soon as Obama left Russia, Medvedev made a high-profile trip to South Ossetia. And as Biden was meeting Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili last week, the Russian foreign ministry warned that Moscow would take measures to prevent Tbilisi from rearming.
But as usual, Obama is playing long-ball -- setting the stage now for political benefits down the road. As one U.S. official put it, "there is not a quarterly bottom line here. This is a process."
And a very high-stakes process at that.
-- Brian Whitmore