Joe Biden and Obama’s lasting Russia-related foreign policy legacy

Life is often a balance between staying home and traveling somewhere else. If you are John Kerry, it means touring the Middle East; if you are Joe Biden, it means you are tramping around with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte during the annual March Reunion, a meeting of dignitaries, military officers and families of paratroopers during which, this year, the topic was the European Union’s decision to refer to Russia’s annexation of Crimea as an “act of aggression.” “I hope you were able to use this chance to raise the costs on Putin, who is now at a potentially critical point,” the former vice president said to Rutte.

It’s been almost a year since Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. But it hasn’t been a year since a quiet prime-time Oval Office address addressed the same crisis by the president of the United States—by his erstwhile vice president.

In the face of economic sanctions imposed by both the EU and the United States, Ukraine has little choice but to call Putin’s bluff—and hope that sanctions combined with military stalemate between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists in the Donbass cease while Ukraine remains in relative poverty despite the mass importation of goods from the EU.

But since Biden’s performance before the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week, concerns are resurfacing over Biden’s and Obama’s relationship with Russia. The Council on Foreign Relations published a statement by the president of Ukraine’s parliament, Volodymyr Lytvyn, who worries, “Don’t forget that Mr. Biden—by Obama’s side with the shameful visit to Moscow in 2014—has a Russian parents.” Urging Obama and Biden to help restore Kiev’s economy and ensure the Ukraine-Russia conflict doesn’t deteriorate further, Lytvyn concludes: “We ask Mr. Biden to speak honestly about what is occurring in Ukraine, and to clarify the difference between Obama and his surrogates and the Russian government.”

If history is any indication, the talk won’t end in Ukraine’s favor.

Here’s how Biden and Obama’s ties to Russia have shaped US foreign policy, according to author Andrew Kuchins.

After the Vietnam War, with Russians a key source of oil, the US saw a resource bonanza in its hands. Its alluring oil reserves also made it a tempting opponent, and in 1989, at the Moscow Summit, Ronald Reagan, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Russian President Boris Yeltsin agreed on a modest treaty, concluding that the US would return all Soviet nuclear weapons to the Russians if they returned to Moscow.

In return, the US agreed to a “deep freeze” in nuclear arms control, with the understanding that a few short years later, the US would “significantly cut” its own.

The “deep freeze” was broadly welcomed by the GOP as an improvement over previous US deals with Russia. Though Reagan and Gorbachev were worlds apart politically, the limited scope of the agreement was a way to keep them talking. The largest nuclear arms reductions in US history followed shortly thereafter, between 1991 and 1994.

Unlike the USSR, Russia is a developed economy, and it is clear from the European economies that the EU has not fully benefitted from its resources. US-Russian tensions have in recent years been mounting in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, and there has been talk of a possible third round of negotiations to tie down Russia’s military and further reduce its supply of gas.

Trump and Russia. Photograph: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

This is not to say there’s no rapprochement to be had with Russia. President Vladimir Putin travels to Washington in April to meet President Donald Trump and some observers are hopeful the two sides can come to some kind of agreement in response to a cyberattack on the American electoral system.

But if history is any indication, the talk won’t end in Ukraine’s favor.

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