'Reset' Sought on Relations With Russia, Biden Says

Vice President Biden, left, meets with French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Munich Security Conference. Remarks by NATO allies suggest the administration faces a challenge in getting agreement on a common approach to Russia.
Vice President Biden, left, meets with French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Munich Security Conference. Remarks by NATO allies suggest the administration faces a challenge in getting agreement on a common approach to Russia. (By Frank Augstein -- Associated Press)

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By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 8, 2009

MUNICH, Feb. 7 -- Vice President Biden told an international security conference here Saturday that the White House wants to "press the reset button" on one of Washington's biggest challenges: its increasingly troublesome relationship with Russia.

Biden ticked off a list of security headaches that the Kremlin has the potential to help or hinder, including the faltering war in Afghanistan and fruitless efforts to persuade North Korea and Iran to forswear nuclear weapons.

"The last few years have seen a dangerous drift in relations between Russia and members of our alliance," Biden said in a speech that the White House advertised as a guide to the Obama administration's foreign policy goals. "The U.S. and Russia can disagree but still work together where its interests coincide."

If statements by European leaders at the conference were any indication, however, it might be just as challenging for the Obama administration to get NATO allies to agree on a common approach to Russia. In some European capitals, Russia is seen as a vital business partner; in others, a bully that holds romantic memories of the Cold War. Oftentimes it is eyed as a combination of both.

In remarks preceding Biden's speech, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country enjoys prosperous trade with Russia but is also dependent on its energy supplies, called for patience. "We need to find ways to incorporate Russia," she said.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who noted that his country has less demand for Russian gas, was more blunt. "Let's be frank about it: There's more and more distrust between the European Union and Russia," he said, citing among other disputes Russia's decision last month to temporarily pull the plug on gas supplies to Eastern Europe.

At the same time, Sarkozy was dismissive of attempts by the U.S. government to expand NATO to include Georgia and Ukraine, which have been major irritants to Russia. "I don't believe that modern Russia constitutes a military threat to the European Union and NATO," he said. "We should act accordingly."

Sharing the stage with Merkel and Sarkozy was the prime minister of Poland, Donald Tusk, who warned his counterparts not to be "naive" about Russian intentions, referring to Russia's brief war with Georgia last summer.

Poland has long memories of occupation by Russian and Soviet forces over the years. More recently, it has been engaged in a trade dispute with the Kremlin over meat exports and has expressed fears that Russia could use its energy supplies as a political weapon.

The Polish government has also drawn Russia's ire for signing a treaty with the United States to host interceptor missiles for the Pentagon's planned missile defense shield.

The Pentagon says the purpose of the system is to prevent Iran or other "rogue states" from firing missiles into Europe, or possibly the United States. But Russia has objected vehemently, arguing that the program is a stalking horse aimed at neutralizing Russia's nuclear arsenal.

In November, the day after President Obama's election, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said his country would retaliate against the missile project by moving batteries of Iskander short-range missiles to the Polish border -- the first time that Russia has openly threatened to target Europe since the end of the Cold War.


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