There are two points to be made regarding Vice President Biden’s recent interview about Russia in the Wall Street Journal, in which he predicts that a weakened Russia will yield to the West.
First, it is far from certain that a weak Russia will react the way Biden expects it to. During Putin’s presidency, Russians enjoyed an unprecedentedly rapid rise in their standard of living. That was the reason for Putin’s great popularity. If this hard-won prosperity now begins to evaporate, the regime will be under enormous pressure to redirect the resentment of the population toward “foreign aggressors,” and the leading candidate will be the U.S.
Second, the U.S. may not have as strong a position as Biden hopes. Influencing a country like Russia requires moral coherence on the part of the West. Unfortunately, the lack of this is reflected in Biden’s own remarks. By stating that “we vastly underestimate the hand we hold” and defining it in economic terms, the vice president treats U.S.-Russian relations as a competition for power in which values play no role. In fact, the principal U.S. positions — that NATO membership should be open to everyone, that nuclear proliferation should be stopped, and that, faced with a possible Iranian nuclear weapon, the West is entitled to adequate defense — would be valid whether we had a “strong hand” or not. By treating questions of principle as matters of interest, the U.S. virtually guarantees that it will be intellectually vulnerable even in dealing with a Russia on the verge of collapse.
During the Democratic primary campaign, Biden, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton all derided each other’s foreign-policy credentials. This is one of the few areas in which it can be said that they were all correct. Relations with countries like Russia that seek to impose false values can never be reduced to a competition for power. On the contrary, they reflect the need of the U.S. to defend universal values in a frequently disordered world.
– David Satter is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. His latest book is Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State.