- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Obama administration has made clear that it will handle Russia more pragmatically than the Bush administration, but there is sharp disagreement over the degree to which the new president will reverse his predecessor’s policies and how that will affect U.S. interests and the Eurasian region.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s speech to world leaders in Munich last weekend was a marked contrast from the Bush era. Instead of championing the cause of former Soviet republics Georgia and Ukraine, both of which want to join NATO, Mr. Biden was silent on the issue. And he left wiggle room for President Obama to back out of a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe.

Mr. Biden warned of a “dangerous drift” in U.S.-Russia relations and said it is time to “press the reset button” and look for areas of cooperation.

Some Russia specialists pointed to caveats in Mr. Biden’s speech and said the Obama administration may remain tough with the Kremlin while also recognizing the limits of U.S. leverage with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev.

Others said that on the key issues - NATO expansion and missile defense - Mr. Biden signaled concessions that would render any tough language irrelevant and would equal capitulation to Russian bullying.

“The speed with which the U.S. administration is giving up old positions is pretty remarkable. It’s quite astonishing,” said Andrei Illarionov, a top economic adviser to Mr. Putin from 2000 to 2005, who has since become a Putin critic and is now at the Cato Institute in Washington.

Mr. Illarionov, who has criticized Mr. Putin for suppressing democracy, called Mr. Biden’s speech “a statement of complete defeat on the part of the U.S. administration” and a “complete victory for the Russian leadership,” citing the vice president’s apparent willingness to skip over a long pattern of Russian domestic misbehavior and international pugnacity.

Others, however, saw Mr. Biden’s address as a more subtle and realistic approach.

“Biden was basically saying, ‘Let’s try to put this relationship on a better footing and see if we can’t back away from the mutual antagonisms that have marked the last few years,’ ” said Charles A. Kupchan, a former top European adviser to President Clinton now with the Council on Foreign Relations and teaching at Georgetown University.

“The question really is: Will the Russians take up the offer and pursue a different kind of diplomacy now that Obama’s in office, or just continue with the status quo?” Mr. Kupchan said.

That’s a big question, he acknowledged, because “Russian behavior over the last 12 months, from the invasion of Georgia to the turning off of gas to Ukraine, provides plenty of reason to be cautious.”

“It never hurts to appear to be open to an improved relationship, but when you observe Russian behavior, they seem to go out of their way to cause problems,” said noted neoconservative Richard Perle. “I can’t think of anything the Russians have done to be helpful to the United States in the last several years.”

A key first test is whether Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic, will let the U.S. continue to use an air base that is a key resupply stop for troops and supplies bound for Afghanistan.

The Washington Times reported Thursday that the Obama administration has sent two top officials to Moscow to urge the Russians to stop pressuring Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to end the lease.

The U.S. is expected to offer additional aid to the former Soviet republic, which announced earlier this month that it was kicking the Americans out. Mr. Bakiyev made the announcement in Moscow after a meeting with Mr. Medvedev, in which the Russian government promised $2 billion in aid to Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz decision has since been put on hold.

While in Moscow last week, William J. Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs and a former ambassador to the Kremlin, signaled that the Obama administration is open to putting parts or all of the missile-defense system in Russia rather than in Poland and the Czech Republic.

“We are also open to the possibility of cooperation, both with Russia and NATO partners, in relation to a new configuration for missile defense, which would use the resources that each of us have,” Mr. Burns was quoted as saying by Russia’s Interfax news agency Friday.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told a German magazine, for an interview to be published Monday, that a Russian offer of a joint missile-defense system from 2007 was still open.

“We already proposed a tripartite, Russia-Europe-U.S. project a year and a half ago,” Mr. Lavrov told Der Spiegel. “With radar stations on Russian territory and in Azerbaijan, we can have a chain that would permit us to apprehend all threats in terms of missiles coming from the south … . We can sit at the negotiating table and start by examining the situation.”

The Bush administration proposed missile defense to protect Europe from a nuclear-armed Iran, but the Russians have always feared it would be used against them. Mr. Biden said the U.S. will continue the program “provided the technology is proven and it is cost-effective.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday that the U.S. will “reconsider” missile defense “if we are able to see a change in behavior on the part of the Iranians with respect to what we believe to be their pursuit of nuclear weapons.”

“But we are a long, long way from seeing such evidence of any behavior change,” she said, following a meeting in Washington with Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg.

Dimitri K. Simes, president of the Nixon Center think tank, said that while switching positions on missile defense and backing off support for Georgian and Ukrainian aspirations to join NATO is “discouraging,” it may be the price for Russian cooperation in other areas.

“If our idea of strategic partnership with Russia is to have our cake and eat it, too, then we cannot make these concessions because our cause is right, and we want to promote freedom,” he said.

“Either you are serious about getting their cooperation, or you tell them it is our way or the highway, not only because we are greater but because we are the city on a shining hill,” he said. “What we’re not entitled to do, if we’re honest with ourselves, is to say we will not have quid pro quo with Kremlin, but we will still get our own way.”

National Security Adviser James L. Jones, during a speech in Munich, seemed to confirm that this is the mentality that will apply to Russia and the rest of the world.

“The president, if nothing else, is a pragmatist. He knows that we must deal with the world as it is,” Gen. Jones said.

Mr. Illarionov, along with others, said the Bush administration did not always face facts with the Kremlin and was not “particularly effective in dealing with Russia, to be honest.”

“But at least the previous administration was trying, maybe not so effectively, to do something, in some crucial areas, like Georgia and Ukraine,” he said.

Malkhaz Mikeladze, the deputy chief of mission at the Georgian Embassy in Washington, told The Washington Times that his government had “a positive assessment” of Mr. Biden’s speech.

He seized on the point in Mr. Biden’s speech where he said the U.S. “will not recognize any nation having a sphere of influence.”

“It will remain our view that sovereign states have the right to make their own decisions and choose their own alliances,” Mr. Biden said.

Mr. Mikeladze said: “We can conclude only on this way: Georgia can make any decision, and any independent countries can join any alliance.”

Ukrainian Ambassador Oleh Shamshur was more circumspect.

“So far, we have no grounds to doubt continuation of the U.S. consistent support of Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic endeavors,” he wrote in an e-mail.

But Mr. Simes said it is obvious that Georgia and Ukraine “clearly are not going to have NATO membership in the next 10 years” and that the Obama administration is “accepting the obvious.”

Mr. Perle, however, said “the basic one-sentence Russian ambition is, they want decisions in all of the countries where they once made decisions themselves … to reflect Russian interests.”

Former Soviet and communist-bloc countries who have felt threatened by Moscow “see a pattern of American weakness in the face of a quite demanding Russian posture, and they worry a lot about it,” Mr. Perle said.

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