Vice President Joe Biden's speech in Moscow was notable for what it didn't do -- namely, ruffle any feathers in the burgeoning relationship between the United States and Russia.
- By Julia IoffeJulia Ioffe is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. She was a senior editor at The New Republic, and was the Moscow correspondent for Foreign Policy and the New Yorker from 2009-2012.
MOSCOW — You can’t really blame U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. It was the end of a long visit to Moscow. For two days, he flitted from meetings to receptions to meetings; he had to see to the happiness of his wife and granddaughter Finnegan, whom he had brought along; and, on top of it all, he had a cold. He was tired. By the time he delivered a major policy speech at Moscow State University on March 10 laying out the Obama administration’s vision of the reset’s next phase, he seemed barely there. And by the time he got around to getting tough with the Russians and invoking the case of imprisoned oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Biden froze. “Over the past few months, our administration has spoken out against allegations of misconduct,” he began, “in the trial of, uh, uh, uh, the uh, excuse me, uh, Kamero … Kerminsky!” he sputtered. And then, by way of apology: “You can tell I didn’t do very well in Russian.”
The linguistic flops aside — Biden said he had brought Finnegan to see the home of the Russian cultural giants, all of whose names proved impossible — the speech was a greatest-hits compilation of everything Barack Obama’s administration has done and has wanted to do, has said publicly and has said privately, vis-à-vis Russia. New START? Check. Shipments of supplies to Afghanistan via Russia? Check. Cooperation on Iran? Check. Fostering an atmosphere of increased trust, starting to build economic ties, gently pressing Russia on rule of law and human rights issues? Ditto. Since last summer, and especially since New START treaty was ratified by the United States in December, the two countries have been working on the economic side of the relationship, with Washington quietly pushing Moscow on rule-of-law issues. Biden’s speech, though, marked a more high-profile appraisal of the reset and in some ways a road map as to where it is headed next. “This reflects what we’ve been talking about since the beginning of the reset,” said a source involved in the trip’s preparations. “The only change is that we’re now building the next phase.”
The next phase is a two-pronged approach, using the trusted carrot and stick. “The next frontier in our relationship,” Biden said, “will be building stronger ties in trade and commerce that match the security accomplishments of the last two years.” In other words, this means Russia’s long-overdue accession to the World Trade Organization and the equally overdue repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a 1974 law built to punish the Soviet Union for not allowing Jews to emigrate but which now prevents Russia from having normal trade relations with the United States.
In turn, that should mean a wave of American investment in Russia, like PepsiCo’s recent purchase, for $4 billion, of Wimm-Bill-Dann, Russia’s largest juice and dairy conglomerate. (In Biden’s mind, though, this was more a fruit of Obama’s political capital: “Imagine, five years ago, the likelihood that an American company could buy the largest anything in Russia.”) There have also been recent big-money deals involving ExxonMobil, Chevron, John Deere, Microsoft, and Alcoa. And on March 9, with Biden and Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov watching, the Russian airline Aeroflot signed a deal buying $2 billion worth of Boeing planes, at a 20 percent discount. (Likewise, there have also been significant investments in the United States by Russian companies like Evraz, a steel company, and Lukoil.) But, as Biden pointed out, Russia was America’s 37th-largest export market last year. “We’ve got to do better,” he said. “We’ve got to do better.”
Then came the stick. “But you in this room know as well as anyone that even if liberalizing our trade relationship, Russia’s business and legal climate are frankly going to have to improve,” Biden said to an auditorium full of business people. “Because right now, for many companies, it presents a fundamental obstacle.” Then he quoted President Dmitry Medvedev’s description of Russia’s problem of “legal nihilism” and used a maneuver he often resorted to in the speech: “Not my quote,” Biden said. “His quote.” (Message: I’m not Bush; I’m not lecturing.)
Biden went on to mention lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in jail in 2009 after exposing a scheme used by three Interior Ministry officials to defraud the Russian treasury of $230 million, and invoked poor, garbled Khodorkovsky. (The latter, the vice president said, was imprisoned “on a political whim.”) Biden’s point, and one Russia watchers have been making for years, is that you can’t simply will investors to Russia. “No amount of government cheerleading, or public relations, or U.S. support, or rebranding will bring wronged or nervous investors back to a market they perceive to have these shortcomings,” he said. “I’m not here to lecture; I’m not here to preach; and I’m not here to tell Russia what to do,” he added, but if Russia wanted foreign investors to come back there was only one thing it could do: “Get your system right.”
The vice president’s team was at pains to portray the speech as nothing out of the ordinary, as one that simply advanced the reset agenda. “We now have a record of achievement on security,” said a senior administration official. “This trip was about one piece of the reset that’s underdeveloped, and that is trade and economic ties. What the vice president said in his speech are messages we’ve been consistently sending, through White House statements on Magnitsky and Khodorkovsky; we’ve had half a dozen statements on Strategy 31 [the movement that protests on the 31st of every 31-day month for freedom of assembly]. In our opinion, we’ve had a consistent message.”
But to everyone who heard it — and to the people who interrupted Biden’s speech to applaud — it was new, because a White House statement that barely registers on a news wire is not the same thing as a vice presidential policy speech, delivered in Moscow. It was also unusual for another reason, as the Obama administration has so far been reluctant to take this tone, at least publicly. Although there have been discussions behind the scenes about the Khodorkovsky case and official boilerplate statements, policy speeches, like Obama’s in Moscow in July 2009, usually limit themselves to abstract “universal values” or focus instead on strategic cooperation, like New START and Iran.
The stranger thing, though, was the fallout from the speech. Namely, there wasn’t any. There was some bluster from the corners that are expected to bluster, like Duma deputy and foreign-policy hawk Sergei Markov. “From what I understand, the subtext of Biden’s speech was ‘Basically, I have to follow Obama’s orders, but basically I hate Russia and I hope that the reset blows up,'” he said, adding that he has yet to see any tangible benefits for Russia from the reset.
In general, though, Biden’s speech passed like the life-advice talk your well-meaning uncle gives you on the sidelines of a family dinner. It’s nice and maybe a little annoying, but it’s nothing you haven’t heard before and you’d rather just go back to drinking with your cousins.
Russian media ignored it, just as Biden largely ignored Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s out-of-left-field suggestion, at their meeting earlier that day, to just drop visa requirements between Russia and the United States. (Biden, a bit taken aback, was reported to have said it was a “good idea” and promised to think it over.) But his speech, in itself, is a massive sign of progress. A similar speech by someone from George W. Bush’s administration — or, God forbid, former Vice President Dick Cheney himself — would have triggered a vicious rhetorical war. But Biden’s critique was calmly received, due in equal parts to the tactful phrasing, the two years of public deference to Russia, and perhaps the uncertainty about who will be leading the two countries after 2012. It’s also a signal of a deepening familiarity between Russia and the United States, notes Fyodor Lukyanov, the well-connected editor of Russia in Global Affairs. “This is the Chinese method,” he explained. “Obama said all kinds of things in China, and China didn’t react. There was no publicity, no change in Chinese policy. Now, in Russia, there’s an understanding that the Americans have to say it, that’s their style. Fine. They want to talk? Let them talk.”
As for the commercial ties, Lukyanov is equally skeptical. “America and Russia will never be major economic partners; it will all stay in Europe,” he said. And in Europe, talk is very different. “The Europeans have to say this stuff about human rights and democracy in public,” Lukyanov explains. “But in private, it’s only about business.”