MOSCOW — An interview U.S. Vice President Joe Biden gave to an American newspaper was front-page news Monday in Moscow, where his characterization of Russia as a weakened nation hit a raw nerve.
Biden said Russia's economic difficulties are likely to make the Kremlin more willing to cooperate with the United States on a range of national security issues.
"I think we vastly underestimate the hand that we hold," he said in an interview to The Wall Street Journal published Saturday.
Biden's comments appeared to catch the Kremlin by surprise, coming less than three weeks after President Barack Obama said on a visit to Moscow that the U.S. wants to see a "strong, peaceful and prosperous Russia."
"It raises the question: Who is shaping U.S. foreign policy? The president or members of his team, even the most respected ones?" said Kremlin foreign policy adviser Sergei Prikhodko.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs on Monday downplayed suggestions that Biden was setting a different U.S. policy from that laid out by the president.
When asked whether Obama thought Biden had gone too far in his remarks, Gibbs said the president stated his views on Russia during his recent visit and the vice president agrees with those views.
Gibbs said both leaders believe Russia will do its part to improve relations with the U.S.
Most Russian newspapers put Biden's interview on their front pages Monday, with headlines casting doubt on Washington's commitment to forge a more constructive relationship with Moscow.
"Joe Biden unexpectedly returned to the rhetoric of the previous Bush administration," the newspaper Kommersant wrote.
Moskovsky Komsomolets said Biden, with his "boorish openness," showed what the Obama administration really thinks about Russia. "We should respond to the Yankees in the same way," the newspaper wrote. "Any other language, unfortunately or fortunately, they do not understand."
The papers jumped on Biden's comments about Russia's demographic and economic problems.
"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," Biden said in the interview.
Some newspapers and commentators noted that Russians say the same things about themselves. The question, they said, was why Biden made the comments so quickly after this month's summit by Obama and President Dmitry Medvedev, and after Biden's own trip last week to Ukraine and Georgia, former Soviet republics whose growing ties to the West are deeply resented in Moscow.
Sergei Rogov, director of the government-funded USA and Canada Institute, was quoted in Kommersant as saying the interview was aimed in part at addressing criticism in the U.S. that the Obama administration was too soft on Russia.
Some commentators said it was wrong to see Biden as diverging from the policy set by Obama, as suggested by Prikhodko.
Biden was most likely expressing Washington's "Plan B," said Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister who now heads his own think tank. If the Kremlin proves unwilling to compromise, the United States was likely to reduce relations to a minimum and push Moscow to the periphery of world politics, Milov wrote in the online Gazeta.ru.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made an apparent effort Sunday to reassure Moscow, saying on NBC "Meet the Press" that the administration considers Russia to be a "great power."
"Every country faces challenges," she said. "We have our challenges, Russia has their challenges. There are certain issues that Russia has to deal with on its own."
Associated Press writer Julie Pace in Washington contributed to this report.