WASHINGTON Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Sunday the United States viewed Russia as a "great power," tempering critical remarks about Moscow by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.
In an interview in the Wall Street Journal this weekend, Biden spoke of Russia's "shrinking population base" and said it had a "withering economy" that would push it to make deals on nuclear arms reductions.
He gave the interview after visiting Ukraine and Georgia where he reiterated U.S. support for the two former Soviet republics at loggerheads with Moscow.
Asked about Biden's comments as the Obama administration seeks to improve ties with Moscow, Clinton said the United States wanted a strong, peaceful and prosperous Russia.
"There is an enormous amount of hard work being done and we view Russia as a great power. Now every country faces challenges. We have our challenges, Russia faces their challenges," she said.
In her first meeting with Russia's foreign minister earlier this year, Clinton symbolically hit a reset button with him to stress U.S. determination to turn around a relationship that soured during the Bush administration.
"We wanted to reset our relationship with Russia. We know that that is not easily done. It takes time, it takes trust building," she said.
While praising Russia for its help in curbing the nuclear ambitions of both North Korea and Iran, Clinton repeated criticism leveled by Biden that Moscow could not impose its will on former Soviet states such as Ukraine and Georgia.
"That is an attitude and a policy that we reject. We also are making it very clear that any nation in Eastern Europe that used to be part of the Soviet Union has a right ... to choose whatever alliance they want to join," she said.
Russia, which has said it was perplexed by Biden's comments, strongly opposes bids by former Soviet states Ukraine and Georgia to join the NATO military alliance.
"If Ukraine and Georgia some day are eligible to join NATO, that should be up to them," said Clinton.
(Reporting by Sue Pleming, editing by Alan Elsner)