Biden Reassures East Europeans

Vice President Joseph Biden’s sharply worded criticism of Russia in his interview with The Wall Street Journal, Saturday, came two days after a group of prominent East Europeans published an open letter to the Obama administration urging Washington not to improve relations with the Russian leadership at the expense of its ties with Eastern Europe.

The letter was signed by former Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel, founder of Poland’s Solidarity movement and former President Lech Walesa, and ex-President Emil Constantinescu of Romania, along with other intellectuals and former leaders. It confessed to “a nervousness in our capitals” over the thaw between Moscow and Washington in the wake of President Obama’s visit to the Russian capital earlier this month, and urged the Americans not to make “the wrong concessions to the Russians.”

One such mistaken concession in the East Europeans’ view would be a decision to bargain away the proposed U.S. anti-missile shield to be deployed in Poland and the Czech Republic as a defense against nuclear rogue states like Iran and North Korea. The missile system, they said, has become “a symbol of U.S. credibility and commitment to the region.”

In his interview, Biden — just back from Georgia and Ukraine — stated flatly, as reported in Sunday’s New York Times, that “the Obama administration would make no deals and accept no compromises with the Kremlin in exchange for better relations.” The vice president refuted Moscow’s declared right to exert a special influence in what the Russians called their “near abroad,” saying the Russians were “clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable.”

This echoed a contention in the open letter that “Russia is back as a revisionist power pursuing a 19th-century agenda with 21st-century tactics and methods.”

There is no indication that Biden was reacting to the concerns expressed in the open letter, which was first published in East European media Thursday. More likely, his tough language was a response to the same concerns heard in Tblisi and Kiev that an American re-engagement with the Russian leadership would dilute Washington’s commitment to Moscow’s former satrapies.

Biden could also have been filling in the gap left by the absence, due to injury, of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from President Barack Obama’s Moscow trip. Clinton has emerged as the one who delivers the tough message in the Obama administration’s foreign policy team — as in her recent blistering comments on North Korea, and her startling reference to a “defense umbrella” for the Middle East should Iran develop nuclear missiles.

As it was, Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, in talks the president later described as amicable, agreed to revive the nuclear weapons reduction dialogue. They also reached an agreement allowing supplies for U.S., forces in Afghanistan to transit through Russia, leaving East Europeans to wonder what Moscow was getting in return. It is reasonable to argue that had Clinton been there she would have provided the less rosy subtext — provided in her absence by Vice President Biden.