Joe Biden was fed up and determined to show the Russians that they should think twice about ever running afoul of him or the United States’ path again.
“I want to let everybody know, I can either be Russia's best friend or worst enemy,” Biden warned. “And if they keep fooling around like this, they are going to have me as their worst enemy.”
But Biden wasn’t talking about Russian meddling in the U.S. elections. He was talking about chickens.
It was May 22, 2002, and Delaware was suffering as a result of a Russian ban on U.S. poultry—a major industry in the small state. Biden, then Delaware’s senior senator and up for re-election, had raised the issue with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and President George W. Bush himself. Biden was one of many upset lawmakers. It wasn’t the first time (or the last) Biden would deal with issue; in 1996, Biden led an effort in the Senate to stop a similar ban from going into effect. By 2002, U.S. poultry was a $40 billion industry, with 38 states involved in production. Russia accounted for 40 percent of all U.S. poultry sales abroad.
Biden had long expressed his suspicions about Vladimir Putin, telling Meet the Press in June 2001 bluntly he did not think the Russian president was trustworthy. Biden was a vocal critic of Russia on a range of national security and foreign policy issues including human rights abuses like the silencing of the press as well as their conduct in the war in Chechnya.
While these issues certainly remained, Biden signaled new hope in working with Russia in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Putin was among the first world leaders to speak directly to Bush and offer his country’s support for whatever came next.
That effort seemed to speed up what had been a warming trend in U.S.–Russian relations, particularly when it came to trade.
In return for Russia’s assistance, Putin had asked for relief from the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law, a Cold War-era measure that barred normal trade relations with then-communist governments due to their limitations on Jewish emigration. Putin saw the law as obsolete and as an impediment to Russia joining the World Trade Organization.
By December 2001, the late California Rep. Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor and human rights champion, began crafting a bill to graduate Russia from the law and Biden and then-Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) expressed interest in introducing the Senate version.
Three months later, everything got really clucked up.
After the Bush administration slapped Russian steel with higher tariffs, Russia—though the Kremlin denied they were retaliating at the time—cut off the U.S. poultry market, citing concerns about its safety.
The ban sent diplomats scrambling. U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow said the issue became the “the number one problem in U.S.-Russian relations” at the time, until the agreement to lift it in mid April 2002.
“This dispute has already caused some harm to our bilateral economic relationship, that's undeniable,” Vershbow said at a press conference in Moscow on March 31, 2002, according to a State Department transcript. “And it will also inevitably complicate Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization.”
Biden made it clear, he would not forget and he wouldn’t let the Bush administration either.
“I want to assure Delaware’s poultry producers that the periodic imposition or threat of a ban remains a crucial issue in U.S.-Russian relations, and that it will not be forgotten when President Bush makes his trip to Russia later this spring,” he wrote in an op-ed in the Delaware State News on April 12, after the ban had been lifted. “The link between international diplomacy and our economic well-being at home has been demonstrated anew.”
Biden has made his record as a respected elder statesman a focal point of his presidential campaign. The trade dispute over chicken also illustrated how Biden balanced his role as a powerful player in the nation’s foreign policy, with the interests of his home state—as well as his willingness to use the levers of power to escalate issues on behalf of his constituents.
“As Vice President and in the U.S. Senate, Joe Biden proudly fought for American exports and stood up to other countries—including Russia—when they tried to deny American workers, farmers, and businesses their fair shot to compete,” said Andrew Bates, a spokesman for Biden’s presidential campaign.
A month after the op-ed, on the eve of the summit between Bush and Putin, Biden made good on the threat to continue the pressure on the Kremlin, accusing Russian officials of deliberately slow-walking the process of restarting the poultry trade.
“When they lifted the embargo, though, they lifted it only in principle,” Biden said in a speech on the Senate floor on May 22 to express his disapproval of a just-passed non-binding “sense of the Senate” resolution in support of normalizing trade relations with Moscow.
“I have been one of the guys criticized on this floor for being too supportive of Russia,” Biden said. “But before I can support taking steps, of any form, to lift trade limits on Russia, I want to make sure they have their act in order, and make sure Russia’s commitment to fair and open trade and the rule of law is in the works.”
After reiterating he believed that Russia, in principle, that Russia should be graduated from the Jackson-Vanik law, he expressed hope that Russia had “gotten the message.”
“I was told personally that the President of the United States of America is going to raise this issue. Tomorrow it begins,” he said. “He is going to raise this issue personally with the President of Russia.”
But, while Biden was instrumental in stopping the momentum to normalize trade with Russia in 2002, nearly a decade later, as vice president he showed he did not hold a grudge.
“It’s better for America—and presumptuous of me to say this, never tell another man his business or another country their interest—but it’s better for America, and I believe better for Russia to be able to trade with each other under predictable and transparent rules,” Biden said in a speech at Moscow State University in 2011. “And that’s also why we’re going to work with Congress to terminate the Jackson-Vanik amendment.”
President Obama signed legislation removing Russia from the Jackson-Vanik Act in December 2012.