Fresh off openly speculating about an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities that precipitated a flurry of questioning news coverage, Vice President Joe Biden's mouth landed the Obama administration in further diplomatic hot water with another foreign policy briar bush: Russia.
En route back from meetings with Georgia and Ukraine - meetings intended to reassure both Eastern European nations that the Obama administration's proposed "reset" of relations with Russia would not come at their expense - the Vice President gave the Wall Street Journal his assessment on Russia: "They have a shrinking population base, they have a withering economy, they have a banking sector and structure that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years, they're in a situation where the world is changing before them and they're clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable."
The Russians, Biden indicated, would be willing to deal with Washington not out of the goodness of their hearts, but because they were weak and had no choice. "I think we vastly underestimate the hand that we hold," he said.
These blunt remarks contrasted sharply with the Obama administration's conciliatory tone - a tone which was to signal a fresh start to a bilateral relationship that had deteriorated significantly throughout the Bush administration. It also sent the White House (once again) into damage control mode. Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs defended Biden as an "enormous asset to the administration," while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared on Meet the Press to echo President Obama's line that America desired a "strong, peaceful and prosperous" Russia.
Despite the distancing, many in Russia were left wondering whether Biden wasn't expressing the administration's true feelings. According to the Associated Press, Biden's remarks graced the front pages of most Russian newspapers the following day, with speculation about his "boorish openness" and America's true intentions.
Russian President Dimitri Medvedev's top foreign policy advisor Sergei Prikhodko told Interfax that it was "perplexing" that "Biden decided to share his interpretation of and his view on the bilateral relations." The interview "raises the question: Who is shaping U.S. foreign policy? The president or members of his team, even the most respected ones?"
Russian Foreign Minister Sergie Lavrov called the remarks "abnormal" on Vesti TV, adding that the Biden interview read "like the rhetoric copied directly from the Bush administration."
"This is a major topic of discussion among [Russian] elites," observed Sam Charap, Associate Director for the Russia and Eurasia Program, Center for American Progress. "They're wondering if it's calculated or a change in official U.S. policy."
"There is speculation in the Russian press that this is part of a secret plan to signal" Washington's true intentions, said Olga Olika, Senior International Policy Analyst, RAND Corporation.
Biden's interview "may be a classic example of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory" because they struck at Russia's rawest nerve, its loss of great power prestige, wrote Heather Conley, Senior Fellow, Center for Strategic and International Studies. Russian officials, Conley observed, are "hypersensitive" on that topic.
Indeed, in her Meet the Press interview, Secretary Clinton deliberately referred to Russia as a "great power" in an effort to mollify wounded feelings.
Be that as it may, experts expect the Biden flap to blow over and not derail the Obama administration's "reset" strategy. "In the long term this will pass," Charap said. "I don't think it reflected the administration's thinking, it was just the words of a tired Vice President." The U.S. and Russia "are moving to manage disagreements, agreeing to disagree, and not let things spiral out of control."
Olika noted that there is genuine desire on behalf of both countries to "seek shared interests - identify what they are, and get a relationship going on a mutual understanding that we don't have to agree, but if we disagree, we can still work on other things."
Whatever the outcome, the Biden flap underscores the diplomatic minefield that the Obama administration is waltzing on: showing respect for Russia's interests without appearing to concede a Russian "sphere of influence" over former Soviet territories.