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Clinton calls Russia a 'great power' after Biden's earlier, harsher remarks

The secretary of State seeks to calm Moscow after Vice President Biden's recent comments that the country is badly damaged economically and its leadership is clinging to the past.

July 27, 2009|Paul Richter

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Sunday that the Obama administration viewed Russia as a "great power," despite Vice President Joe Biden's observations that the former rival nation was saddled with deepening economic problems and backward-looking leadership.

Clinton, seeking to take the edge off Biden's recent remarks, acknowledged that the longtime adversaries had problems with each other's policies. "They have questions about our policies and we have questions about some of theirs," she said in an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press."

But she insisted that the two countries were attempting to work out their differences and that the United States respected Moscow.

"We view Russia as a great power," she said, adding that the two countries were already beginning to see the "resetting" of relations that President Obama has sought.

The vice president roiled relations with Moscow by describing Russia as a country with a badly damaged economy, a fragile banking structure and a leadership that is "clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable.' "

Biden's remarks, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, came at the end of a four-day visit to Georgia and Ukraine in which he reassured the two countries of U.S. support in the face of Russian pressure. Moscow, vexed that Biden should be criticizing Russia so soon after Obama's visit there, demanded a clarification of his comments.

Though Russia's powers have diminished greatly since the days of the Soviet Union, Moscow's cooperation is vital for U.S. efforts to deal with Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan and Arab-Israeli strife.

Obama's trip to Moscow was intended to reduce the tensions.

But Biden suggested that Russia had a weak hand and might have no choice but to accede to American wishes because of its deepening problems, including a "withering" economy.

On another issue, Clinton said she preferred to remain ambiguous about whether the United States would offer Iran's neighbors nuclear protection from Iran if Tehran developed nuclear-weapons capability.

Clinton stirred wide comment in the Middle East last week by saying that the United States might erect a "defense umbrella" over the region to protect allies if Tehran succeeded in what Washington believed were efforts to acquire nuclear weapons know-how.

It wasn't clear whether that meant the United States would respond with a nuclear strike on Iran if Tehran used a nuclear weapon on a neighbor. Asked for a clarification, Clinton said, "We are not talking in specifics because that would come later, if at all."

Her comments on the "defense umbrella" were intended to convince Iran that it would face a graver security situation with a bomb than without one.

Clinton also sought to signal that she felt comfortable as part of what some have called a "team of rivals" in the Obama Cabinet.

She said she had in her office a picture of William Seward, the New York senator and Lincoln political rival who joined Lincoln's Cabinet as secretary of State to help Lincoln during the war.

Clinton has been struggling to make her voice heard in foreign policy at a time when a long list of administration luminaries, including Biden, special envoys George J. Mitchell and Richard C. Holbrooke, and Obama's own aides, are vying for attention.

She described herself as "the chief advisor," the "chief executor" and the "chief diplomat" but said that ultimately Obama made the foreign policy decisions.

Clinton tried to damp expectations that she would ever again be interested in seeking the presidency. But she stopped short of categorically ruling out a future run.

She said, "I have absolutely no belief in my mind that this is going to happen.' "

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paul.richter@latimes.com

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