Joe Biden Lurks Behind Every U.S. Action on Ukraine

And a potential 2016 presidential run hinges on the vice president’s success.

Vice President Joe Biden delivers a speech in Kiev in 2009.
National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
March 13, 2014, 1 a.m.

Who says Joe Biden hasn’t got the right for­eign policy chops?

Well, former De­fense sec­ret­ary Robert Gates did, in Janu­ary, when he wrote in his mem­oir that the vice pres­id­ent has been “wrong on nearly every ma­jor for­eign policy and na­tion­al se­cur­ity is­sue over the past four dec­ades.”

But the cri­ti­cism hasn’t slowed Biden down. For the past four months, the vice pres­id­ent has been Wash­ing­ton’s prime point of con­tact with Ukraine, quietly tak­ing care of dip­lo­mat­ic man­euv­er­ing for the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion stateside while Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry meets with European of­fi­cials abroad.

Between Novem­ber and Feb­ru­ary, Biden spoke to now-ous­ted Ukrain­i­an Pres­id­ent Vikt­or Ya­nukovych by phone six times — an un­usu­al level of con­tact.

On Nov. 22, Biden told Ya­nukovych the U.S. was dis­ap­poin­ted by the Ukrain­i­an gov­ern­ment’s de­cision to not sign a trade agree­ment with the European Uni­on, the very move that pre­cip­it­ated Ya­nukovych’s even­tu­al over­throw. A few weeks later, the vice pres­id­ent was call­ing about his “deep con­cern” for “the grow­ing po­ten­tial vi­ol­ence” in the re­gion.

On Jan. 27, Biden urged Ya­nukovych to pull back ri­ot po­lice and ne­go­ti­ate with the op­pos­i­tion. Two more calls soon after re­it­er­ated the mes­sage. By Feb. 18, Biden was ex­press­ing “grave con­cern” about what was hap­pen­ing in the streets of Kiev. Two days later, Biden warned that the United States was pre­pared to sanc­tion Ukrain­i­an of­fi­cials re­spons­ible for the vi­ol­ence.

And two days be­fore the Ukrain­i­an lead­er fled Kiev late last month, as pro­test­ers clashed with po­lice in the streets, he spent an hour on the phone with Biden, who helped con­vince Ya­nukovych to sign a deal with op­pos­i­tion forces.

This week, Biden cut his Lat­in Amer­ica tour short, skip­ping a sched­uled vis­it to the Domin­ic­an Re­pub­lic and fly­ing home from Chile to at­tend Wed­nes­day’s meet­ing with Pres­id­ent Obama and new Ukrain­i­an Prime Min­is­ter Ar­sen­iy Yat­seny­uk.

Biden has also been mak­ing his rounds with Ukraine’s neigh­bors as the stan­doff between Ukraine and Rus­sia con­tin­ues. He spoke with the prime min­is­ter of Po­land in late Feb­ru­ary, the pres­id­ents of Latvia and Es­to­nia last week, and the pres­id­ent of Cyprus on Monday. Biden also rang Rus­si­an Prime Min­is­ter Dmitriy Med­ve­dev last week to urge his coun­try to with­draw its troops from Crimea.

The ver­dict is still out on wheth­er Biden is “wrong” on this par­tic­u­lar ma­jor for­eign policy is­sue. His plan for Ya­nukovych to peace­fully handle the pro­test­ers in Kiev didn’t pan out, al­though the situ­ation could have es­cal­ated fur­ther if the Ukrain­i­an pres­id­ent had stayed in of­fice.

But the vice pres­id­ent’s deep in­volve­ment in the crisis may af­fect his not-so-dis­tant polit­ic­al fu­ture. Matt Spetal­nick ex­plains how, for Re­u­ters:

Biden would be un­able to sep­ar­ate him­self from the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­cord on Ukraine if the West comes out on the los­ing end of its worst stan­doff with Mo­scow since the Cold War.

“He’s tied to Ukraine policy, no mat­ter how it comes out,” said Shir­ley Anne War­shaw, a pres­id­en­tial schol­ar at Gettys­burg Col­lege in Pennsylvania. “So he could be vul­ner­able.”

If the U.S. comes out a win­ner — bol­ster­ing Ukraine’s in­teg­ra­tion with the West and keep­ing Rus­sia out of east­ern Ukraine — Biden can pad his re­sume for a pos­sible 2016 bid. The vice pres­id­ent has already hin­ted that his ex­tens­ive for­eign policy ex­per­i­ence — he served as chair­man of the Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee as a Delaware sen­at­or for years — makes him a good pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate. “I think my know­ledge of for­eign policy, my en­gage­ment with world lead­ers, my ex­per­i­ence, is — uniquely po­s­i­tions me to be — to fol­low through on the agenda Barack and I have of bring­ing up world peace in a way that is real and sub­stant­ive,” he said last month.

But if the U.S. emerges from the con­flict with geo­pol­it­ic­al wounds, Re­pub­lic­ans will have all they need to at­tack Biden’s for­eign policy short­com­ings if he runs. Whatever the end res­ult, Biden will re­main at the cen­ter of Amer­ica’s policy in Ukraine for as long as the crisis con­tin­ues. The vice pres­id­ent has said Obama trusts him to de­liv­er on ma­jor in­ter­na­tion­al tasks, such as the with­draw­al of U.S. troops from Ir­aq. Looks like the pres­id­ent trusts him on Ukraine, too.

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