Pull back your security forces now and accept a European-brokered
settlement or you will be held accountable, Biden warned the
pro-Russian leader. "It WILL catch up with you."
Initially defiant, Yanukovich sounded subdued by the end of the
hour-long call, according to a senior U.S. official knowledgeable of
the conversation. Within hours, Yanukovich signed a deal with the
opposition and then fled to Russia.
Whether Biden's 11th-hour warning was decisive or merely served in a
supporting role to European Union negotiators, his intensive
telephone diplomacy illustrates the kind of troubleshooting that has
become integral to his portfolio in President Barack Obama's second
However, given the United States' limited options in the Ukraine
crisis after Russia seized the Crimea peninsula, Biden's role as a
loyal Obama adviser on foreign policy poses risks to his political
future if he runs for president in 2016.
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."
Republican critics can also be expected to keep the heat on the
administration and by extension, Biden for what they say is a
foreign policy that has exposed U.S. weakness in issues like the
Syrian civil war, Iran nuclear talks, Afghanistan and the growing
military challenge from China.
Possible 2016 Democratic rival Hillary Clinton decided to stake out
a hawkish stance on Russian President Vladimir Putin last week. In
condemning Moscow's Crimea incursion, she invoked Adolf Hitler's
actions leading up to World War Two.
Though Clinton said she was not making a direct comparison between
the two men, the former secretary of state's line of attack was at
odds with the White House's more cautious approach and made her look
tough on Russia as she considers a possible presidential campaign.
GETTING IT MOSTLY WRONG OR NOT
Biden made a name for himself early in his Senate career as a
centrist Democrat calling on his party to be more willing to back
diplomacy with power. But since taking office, Biden, mindful of
Americans' war-weariness, has often been in sync with Obama's
reluctance to commit to new armed entanglements.
Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates put Biden on the spot when he
wrote in his memoir released in January that the vice president,
over the past four decades, had been "wrong on nearly every major
foreign policy and national security issue" areas long viewed as
Republican Senator John McCain said Gates' critique had merit,
telling CNN that Biden "has been wrong on a lot of these issues."
McCain has since blamed the administration's "feckless" foreign
policy for inviting the Ukraine crisis.
Biden's supporters see Gates' accusation as an attempt to settle
scores. "The vice president argued that we shouldn't put as many
troops in Afghanistan as they (the Pentagon) wanted," said Ted
Kaufman, Biden's longtime chief aide before being appointed to serve
out his term as Delaware's U.S. senator. "Joe was right."
As Biden eyes a possible White House bid, another unpopular war
could still weigh on his decision. Though he spearheaded
administration policy that brought about the U.S. withdrawal from
Iraq, he failed to secure a deal to keep a modest troop presence
Even years later, an issue that would likely resurface in a
presidential campaign is an often-ridiculed proposal he made as head
of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that essentially advocated
splitting Iraq in three along sectarian lines.
Biden could also have to answer questions about the advice he
famously gave to Obama in 2011 not to go ahead with the raid in
Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden. The vice president has
admitted he thought the special forces operation was too risky.
The ability to act as outspoken contrarian in the inner circle was
one of Obama's chief reasons for picking Biden. He also brought vast
congressional experience in foreign policy and personal
relationships with a who's who of world leaders.
Biden's old-school, back-slapping style and occasional verbal
gaffes makes him the opposite of the cool, deliberative Obama. But
what he won from Obama was a promise to allow him to be the last
voice in the room, associates say.
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Biden has leveraged his role to avoid the vice presidential curse of
irrelevance, which was widely seen as the plight of Al Gore, the
last Democrat to hold the office. But Biden has also steered clear
of the behind-the-scenes power games of his immediate predecessor,
Republican Dick Cheney.
"Biden has found a way to be influential on foreign policy without
feeling the need to claim his own turf," said Warshaw, author of the
book "The Co-Presidency of Bush and Cheney."
After five years,
Biden's role appears to be that of tending to some of Obama's
toughest problems going to "places that he doesn't want to go," as
the vice president told a Munich security conference only
half-jokingly in 2013.
But some supporters privately wonder whether, as he gets closer to a
decision on 2016, he may want to start easing himself out of Obama's
shadow, especially on foreign policy.
For now, Biden's fortunes could hinge to an extent on what happens
with Ukraine and its former Cold War master, Russia.
It was Biden, in fact, who was credited with coining the phrase
"push the reset button," the administration's early and since
abandoned approach to Russia.
Republican critics point to Crimea as final proof that the "reset"
was naοve, and they can be expected to try to use it as ammunition
against Democrats in this year's mid-term elections and against
Biden if he seeks the presidency two years later.
But Clinton might also be vulnerable as she too promoted the reset
policy, which did yield a nuclear arms control pact, a deal for U.S.
forces to use Russian territory going to and from Afghanistan and
Russian cooperation on Iran sanctions.
In any presidential campaign, Clinton would also face questions
about how she handled the 2012 killing of four Americans, including
the U.S. ambassador, in a militant attack in Benghazi, Libya.
TASKED WITH CRISIS MANAGEMENT
Tony Blinken, Biden's national security adviser during the first
term, insisted the vice president was "always clear-eyed" about the
"reset" outreach to Moscow and rejected from the outset any Russian
"sphere of influence" encompassing ex-Soviet republics.
As protests erupted in Ukraine in November after Yanukovich spurned
a free trade deal with the EU for closer ties with Russia, Obama
tasked Biden to be his main point of contact with the Ukrainian
leader. Biden had first met Yanukovich, then opposition leader,
during a visit to Ukraine in 2009.
Speaking to Yanukovich half a dozen times as the crisis escalated,
Biden urged him not to make "the classic mistake of coming in with
too little, too late" to meet protesters' grievances, the senior
administration official said.
In their final call on February 20, with dozens already killed in
Kiev's Maidan square, Biden warned Yanukovich that if he went ahead
with an even more violent response, "it won't just be history that
judges you" but the Ukrainian people. Russia's operation in Crimea
began within days of Yanukovich's flight.
Even as Secretary of State John Kerry has taken the role of trying
to get Russia to back down, Biden remains a key player. He cut short
a trip to Latin America to attend Obama's talks on Wednesday with
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk.
"He has been and will be at the center of our policy," said Blinken,
now Obama's deputy national security adviser.
(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; editing by Tom Brown)
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