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Joe Biden Walks the Fine Line between Making Friends with Russia and Staying Friends with Georgia and Ukraine
Georgia and Ukraine eagerly awaited the arrival of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden this week. They hoped that he would use his visit to signal support for their post-colored revolution yet troubled governments. And, even more importantly, that he would give a clear message about America's intolerance of Russia's influence over their affairs. But despite the high hopes of these two former-Soviet countries, Biden's words broke through their rose and orange tinted hopes to draw attention to their own internal setbacks.
Biden’s speeches in both former-Soviet countries were lacking the anti-Russian rhetoric that was typical of his predecessor, Dick Cheney. The United States seems to have a different policy toward Russia, as was made clear by U.S. President Barack Obama when he paid a visit to Moscow earlier this month. During his stay, Obama mostly looked to future cooperation with the old Cold War enemy, and tried to avoid rocking the boat by not mentioning the less pleasant internal problems of the country.
Does this mean that Georgia and Ukraine are now included in Russia's domestic problems, as far as the United States is concerned? Not quite. Biden stressed during his trip to the two countries that America will stand by their independence. But his careful rhetoric with regard to Russia has intensified the former-Soviet countries’ worries about the consequences that closer U.S.-Russian relations could have for Eastern Europe.
On Tuesday, Biden expressed his support for Ukraine, but warned that the country’s future would depend on the country’s own efficiency. “Ukraine, in my humble opinion, must heed the lesson of history. Effective, accountable government is the only way to provide a stable, predictable and transparent environment that attracts investments ... the economic engine of development,” he said in a speech addressing the country’s leaders.
The vice president also emphasized the breakdown of communications within the Ukrainian government that has destabilized the country in the last several years. This willingness to mix words of support with criticism is demonstrative of the current U.S. presidential administration’s departure from the George Bush administration’s foreign policy regarding Russia and the former Soviet space, now famously known as a “reset.”
In Georgia on Thursday, Biden claimed that the improving of U.S.-Russian relations should not be done at the expense of Georgia. In a speech addressing the Georgian government, the U.S. vice president condemned Russia’s actions toward its southern neighbor. “We call upon Russia to honor its international commitment, clearly specified in the April 12 ceasefire agreement, including withdrawal of all forces to their pre-conflict positions and ultimately out of your territorial area,” he announced.
Indeed, the time of friendly relations with ex-Soviet countries at the expense of the relationship with Russia is now over for the United States, Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Center believes. America wants to be able to get on with both. But Biden’s demonstrated cooler approach toward Ukraine and Georgia also has a lot to do with the internal problems in the two countries.
In Ukraine this has to do with a lack of an economic infrastructure and a heavy reliance on Russia both politically and economically. But it also has to do with the internal split in the country’s government, between the country’s President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. “The politicians themselves are destabilizing the country, especially in the very difficult economic crisis that Ukraine faces. This provides more foundation for the more removed approach of the United States,” Lipman said.
Georgia also has difficulties, as this year’s protests for the resignations of its President Mikheil Saakashvili have shown. The country was strongly supported by the United States under President George Bush, but this intensified Russian mistrust of both, leading to accusations that America backed Georgia in the August war last year. Saakashvili’s hot-headed mishandling of relations with Russia has led a part of Georgian society to question his approach and abilities.
Ukraine and Georgia’s worries about Russian aggression are also shared by other nations. Last week, twenty-two former East European leaders signed an open letter to Washington, in which they stated that the threat from Russia was still very real for them. Lipman believes that these fears have substantial foundations. “I think that this letter has been dictated by the war with Georgia and the change of the U.S. administration, which no longer has the policy of supporting countries of the former Soviet Union if that jeopardizes its relationship with Russia. This is clearly a concern for countries who believed that their main ally and protector was the United States,” she said.
The letter voices a serious concern for the future of U.S. plans to place elements of a missile defense shield and radar in the Czech Republic and Poland. Obama has so far been much more skeptical about the plans for the construction of the missile defense system than his predecessor. The talks between Russia and the United States in the last couple of months have shown that both countries are willing to put off the project. But the East European countries - or at least their former leaders - warned that they should have more say in the process. “Abandoning the program entirely or involving Russia too deeply in it without consulting Poland or the Czech Republic can undermine the credibility of the United States across the whole region,” read the letter, which was republished on the Open Democracy human rights Web site.
The letter signed by the former leaders, however, is somewhat of an anomaly, as its interpretation of the reasons for the missile defense system is at odds with the official position in Washington. It implies that the defense system is needed to protect Europe from Russia, an idea that Washington denies, claiming instead that it is needed as protection against Iran.
But security against Russia is of paramount importance to Georgia after coming to blows with the Russian armed forces last year. Georgia, like Ukraine, wants to be part of NATO, but Biden’s words on the subject were noncommittal. Although this may ease U.S.-Russian tensions, perhaps a bigger reason for America’s reluctance to have these countries in the NATO club is simply that they are not ready yet. “This is not a matter of America’s preferences, but of the desire of these countries and their lack of compliance to NATO standards,” Lipman said.
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