(CNSNews.com) – Twenty-six years ago, then-Senator Joe Biden ridiculed the notion that Russia might respond to NATO’s eastward enlargement by drawing closer to China or Iran.
Addressing an audience in Washington in 1997, Biden said that when Russian lawmakers with whom he discussed the issue suggested that expanding the alliance into Moscow’s backyard might prompt Russia to “look to China,” he had wished them “lots of luck in your senior year.”
“And if that doesn’t work, try Iran,” he recalled telling the Russians.
With U.S. concerns aired this week that China may provide “lethal aid” to Russia’s war on Ukraine, and amid signs of a deepening Russia-China-Iran collaboration in the economic, military, and diplomatic spheres, the remarks by the then-ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are worth revisiting.
“I firmly believe that NATO enlargement need not adversely affect the U.S. relationship with Russia,” Biden (D-Delaware) told the Atlantic Council on June 18, 1997, saying he reached that conclusion after a trip to Russia, where he met with a number of officials and senior lawmakers in the State Duma.
“Although few Russians are fond of NATO enlargement, policymakers in Moscow have accepted it,” he said.
“Moreover, no Russian politician with whom I met, from Communist leader [Gennady] Zyuganov to liberal leader [Grigory] Yavlinsky to nationalist leader [Alexander] Lebed, believed that NATO enlargement constitutes a security threat to their country.”
(Biden did not say if he met with Vladimir Putin, who at the time was President Boris Yelstsin’s deputy chief of staff.)
Biden said the Kremlin’s public opposition to NATO’s eastward expansion was, in his view, “largely a question of a psychological problem they are undergoing now – connected with the loss of empire, wounded pride, and most importantly, uncertainty about Russia’s place in the world in the 21st century.”
Despite saying that no lawmakers he spoke to believed NATO enlargement to be a threat, Biden then recounted having conversations with Zyuganov and Lebed, in which they did raise concerns.
“They talked about, they don’t want this NATO expansion; they know it’s not in their security interests, and on and on, and said, ‘well, if you do that, we may have to look to China,’” Biden recalled.
“And I couldn’t help using the colloquial expression from my state, by saying to Zyuganov, ‘Lots of luck in your senior year.’ You know, uh, ‘Good luck. And if that doesn’t work, try Iran.’”
As his audience laughed, Biden continued. “And uh – I’m serious. I said that to them.”
Everyone knew that that was “not an option,” he said. “Every one of those leaders acknowledges and needs – and they resent it – but they need, they need to look West.”
Biden’s 1997 visit to Russia came just weeks after the NATO-Russia Founding Act was signed in Paris.
At a time when former communist countries were lining up to join NATO, the alliance said in that document that it did not intend to station “substantial combat forces” on the territories of the prospective new members, “in the current and foreseeable security environment.”
The Kremlin has for years accused the alliance of contravening those pledges. When, in the run-up to the invasion of Ukraine, it called in late 2021 for written “security guarantees” from the alliance and the U.S., it cited the Founding Act commitments.
After the invasion began a year ago, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg countered that the Founding Act had clearly tied those commitments to “the current and foreseeable security environment.”
The security environment now facing the region was “totally different” from 1997, Stoltenberg argued.
Weeks before he invaded Ukraine, Putin met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and they declared a “no limits” partnership between their two countries.
Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a meeting of the State Duma that the strategic partnership with China “has reached a historically unprecedented level.” He described it as the foundation of an emerging “polycentric architecture” that will end the West’s “monopoly” over global affairs.
Commenting on Lavrov’s remarks, a foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing said, “China stands ready to work with Russia to further advance our comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era.”
Wang Yi, the Chinese Communist Party’s top foreign affairs official, is in Moscow this week, and the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that Xi plans to visit in the coming months.
Iran is also increasing its bilateral relations with Russia and with China.
Putin last summer chose Iran as his first foreign destination outside the former Soviet region since he invaded Ukraine. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited Beijing earlier this month, the first official visit by an Iranian leader in 20 years.
“There’s an increasingly noxious relationship between Russia and Iran,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a weekend interview, noting that while Iran was providing combat drones for Russia’s war, “Russia is also providing military equipment to Iran, including, it looks like, sophisticated fighter planes.”
China, Russia, and Iran have been holding annual three-way naval exercises since 2019.
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