Only two weeks ago Barack Obama was in Russia, stressing his respect for its leaders and promising to move beyond the tensions and misunderstandings of the Bush era. But yesterday in Georgia his vice-president, Joe Biden, was conveying a somewhat different message.
To a large extent, this is Biden’s job: to say things that the Administration wants said but doesn’t want to take full responsibility for. A vice-president has deniability — because although linked with the president he is not accountable to him — and Biden has it in spades because of his own reputation for saying whatever’s on his mind without considering the consequences.
Hence, Biden yesterday promising the Georgians to “make clear to the whole world, and to the Russians particularly, that we stand with you” and, “raising his voice to a shout” (as the New York Times put it), denouncing Russia for its “19th-century notion of spheres of influence”.
But not all is as it seems here. Although Georgia got rhetorical support from the vice-president, it doesn’t seem to have come away with anything more concrete. Biden’s spokesperson referred to assistance for Georgia’s military as merely “long-term possibilities”, and Biden himself stressed that there is “no military option” for Georgia to recover the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
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This rather delicate balancing act shows some of the difficulty Obama faces in pursuing rapprochement with Russia. But the difficulties are largely of America’s own making: after all, Georgia did start the war last year, and it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that George W Bush’s vocal support and anti-Russian attitude was a major factor in prompting Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili to begin hostilities.
At the time, Obama was a voice for relative moderation on the issue. His election opponent, John McCain, went even further than the Bush Administration, and it would be politically impossible for any American president to cut the Georgians loose entirely or recognise a Russian “sphere of influence”, in Biden’s words, in the transcaucasus.
But some commentators are suggesting that Obama would like to reorder America’s priorities in the area. The policy of helping to install pro-American governments on Russia’s southern fringe has not been an outstanding success; Saakashvili is already under attack for authoritarian tendencies, and another ally, Kyrgyzstan’s Kurmanbek Bakiyev, is this week embroiled in a disputed re-election bid.
Ingo Mannteufel, Deutsche-Welle‘s Russian correspondent, portrays Biden’s visit as part of a move to “liberate the US” from “dependence” on its anti-Russian allies. In that event, “Ukraine and Georgia can continue to rely on US support, but they will be able to exercise less pressure on US policy.” That’s probably a fair estimate of Obama’s intentions — if less exciting than the theory that Joe Biden is off on a frolic of his own.