With Friends Like Joe Biden…

September 3, 2009
Anthony T. Salvia

Bucking the wishes of a solid majority of Ukrainians, President Victor Yushchenko is plowing ahead with plans to incorporate Ukraine in NATO. In early August, he signed off on a national program to meet NATO membership criteria and gave his cabinet four weeks to present him with an implementation scheme.

It’s a politically risky move that recently got a lot riskier thanks to the activities of a voluble overseas friend of the President’s.

I refer to U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden and his recent interview in The Wall Street Journal in which he takes on Russia. It has the effect of inadvertently undermining Ukraine’s bid for NATO entry.

Ukrainian politicians of the anti-NATO camp will surely seize on it as evidence that NATO is an offensive organization, not a defensive one—part and parcel of the U.S. effort to encircle Russia and take it down as a great power.

Russia views Ukrainian entry, coupled with plans to deploy an ABM system in Poland and the Czech Republic, as a one-two punch to its solar plexus: if these plans were to come to pass, Russia’s deterrent capability—the key to its security—would be well on its way to extinction; European Russia would be surrounded to the west, north and south by hostile forces, and Eastern Slavic, Orthodox Europe effectively rent asunder.

Those who think Moscow misconstrues Washington’s intentions ought to think again in light of the evident hostility towards Russia at the highest levels of the U.S. government.

In the interview, the vice president seems to take satisfaction in Russia’s economic woes and demographic decline. He insists that the U.S. cut no deals with Moscow over Ukrainian entry in NATO, and wistfully regrets that the U.S. did not do more to support Islamic extremists in Chechnya (thereby blowing a chance to wreak havoc in the Caucasus at Russia’s expense.)

The very headline tells the story: “Biden Says Weakened Russia Will Bend to U.S.” In Biden’s view, Russia, through a combination of internal weakness and external pressure (such as NATO expansion), will be brought to its knees and made to submit to American diktat.

Biden’s implicit designation of Russia as an adversary undercuts the efforts of pro-NATO politicians in Kyiv to spin Alliance membership as a defensive measure to deter aggression, and as a manifestation of sovereignty—Ukraine will choose its own partners no matter what powerful near neighbors have to say about it.

These lines of argumentation are problematic in themselves. For one thing, it is hard to imagine the U.S. coming to the defense of Ukraine in the event of attack; inconceivable if the aggressor were to possess nuclear weapons. For another, freedom to choose one’s strategic partners sounds fine in the abstract, but the Alliance does not exist in a vacuum divorced from geopolitical realities—and neither does Ukraine.

In any case, Biden’s antipathy to Russia fatally undermines both arguments. Clearly, if Biden’s world-view reflects the thinking of America’s foreign policy elite—and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it does—Ukraine would be the tool of a foreign power in its drive to take down Russia. There would be nothing defensive about that, and Ukraine’s national interests would never be taken into account. Ukraine would be along for the ride—on a roller coaster without brakes. Some manifestation of sovereignty.

Biden’s frankness may also have harmed Ukraine’s accession bid with key NATO member-states. As it is, Paris and Berlin oppose Ukrainian membership so as not to provoke Moscow, jeopardize the flow of Russian energy across Ukraine, and generally plunge Europe’s eastern periphery into crisis.

Now, in view of the vice president’s remarks, they must realize that NATO expansion is less a matter of shoring up Ukrainian and Georgian sovereignty than of actively provoking Russia.

And there’s more: Biden’s words seem to contradict President Barack Obama’s efforts to “reset” relations with Russia. At last month’s Moscow summit, he called for a “global partnership” with Russia to tackle a host of vital issues. He said he wished to see a “strong, peaceful and prosperous” Russia occupying “its rightful place as a great power.”

The President has a decision to make: Will it be, to use his words, “global partnership”—the shining promise of the pan-European concert of powers envisioned by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev—or continued US efforts, begun by Bill Clinton, and intensified by his successor, to encircle Russia with a view ultimately to dismembering it?

No matter what the president decides, one thing is clear: there can and will be no “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations unless and until the U.S. suspends its Drang nach Osten. By undermining that drive, the vice president, inadvertently, may have done all concerned a big favor.

The United States should not be handing out defense guarantees it cannot honor, and Ukraine should not allow a nuclear tripwire to be stretched along its border with Russia. No good can come from erecting a new Berlin Wall in the heart of Europe.

Broadly speaking, U.S. policy as enunciated by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is reasonable. It has two pillars:

  • Ukraine is a “very good friend” and “strategic partner,” whose fragile sovereignty is a mater of serious and legitimate concern to the United States.
  • Relations with Russia have suffered a grievous setback in recent years, much to the detriment of both the U.S. and Russia. It’s high time the relationship got back on track.

Although these goals may seem contradictory, they need not be. It is only when Ukrainian membership in NATO enters the mix that U.S. policy comes a cropper—no “very good friend” of Ukraine would seek to embroil it with a powerful near neighbor; and no effort to repair relations with Russia can succeed if the U.S. persists in seeking to encircle it.

President Obama’s challenge is to strike a balance between Ukraine’s concern to solidify its newfound sovereignty and the need to improve U.S.-Russian relations to the point where Russia, too, can be considered a “very good friend,” and “strategic partner.”

If he can pull this off, it will be a diplomatic triumph of the first order. We cannot explore here all the ways available to the President to achieve this goal—suffice it to say that the first step must be to take NATO expansion permanently off the table.