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.
Although the Bush administration aggressively pursued the missile shield, Obama has been cool to the idea and has declined to make a firm commitment.
On Saturday, Biden said the project would move forward, but he attached two major caveats. "We will continue to develop missile defenses to counter a growing Iranian capability -- provided the technology is proven to work and is cost-effective," he said.
The Obama administration has recently had to confront another Russian obstacle in the war in Afghanistan.
Last week, the president of Kyrgystan announced during a trip to Moscow that his Central Asian country would close a U.S. military base on its territory that provides a vital supply link to U.S. and NATO forces in next-door Afghanistan. The Pentagon has blamed Russia for pressuring Kyrgystan, though Russian officials have denied it.
Biden did not directly mention that dust-up in his speech. But he said the Kremlin and the White House had a shared interest in bringing stability to Afghanistan, noting that Russia had "long ago" warned about a rising threat posed there by the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
"Today, NATO and Russia can and should cooperate to defeat this common enemy," he said.
But Biden also served notice that the Obama administration would take a harder line on other issues with Russia. The United States, he said, would not tolerate Russian attempts to impose a "sphere of influence" over its neighbors. Nor would it recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway territories in Georgia where Russia has stationed military forces.
Obama administration officials said they are simultaneously trying to bolster diplomatic contacts with the Kremlin. On Sunday, for example, Biden is scheduled to meet with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov in Munich.
Other Russian officials attending the conference in Munich praised the general tone of Biden's speech and predicted it would be well received in Moscow.
"This is an important move forward, because Mr. Biden was here, speaking about the need to listen to partners," said Konstantin Kosachev, head of the foreign relations committee in the Russian parliament. "This is the major difference between Mr. Obama and Mr. Bush, because Mr. Bush was absolutely sure there was no need of listening to anybody."
In his 25-minute speech, Biden extended an olive branch to another antagonist: Iran.
He said the Obama administration, reversing the policy of the Bush White House, was willing to engage the government in Tehran, but he cautioned Iran to stop trying to develop nuclear weapons and change its security policies in the Middle East.
"This much is clear: We will be willing to talk," Biden said. But he also offered Iran what he called "a very clear choice."
"Continue down your current course, and there will be pressure and isolation," he said. "Abandon your illicit nuclear program and support for terrorism, and there will be meaningful incentives."
Iranian officials, who say they are conducting nuclear research only for peaceful purposes, did not offer an immediate reaction. Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament and a former top negotiator on nuclear issues, left the conference hall shortly before Biden began speaking.
On Friday, Larijani said the U.S. government would have to own up to decades of "mistakes" before talks could take place, but he did not rule them out.
In contrast to prior years at the conference, when Bush administration officials were openly challenged over the war in Iraq and other policies, Biden received effusive handshakes from European leaders and sustained applause as he was introduced.
Throughout his speech, the vice president sought to convey a reassuring tone, promising to treat U.S. allies as equal partners.
"We will engage. We will listen. We will consult," he said. "America needs the world, just as I believe the world needs America."
Biden made clear, however, that the White House would expect more of its European allies on a number of fronts, including the war in Afghanistan.
The White House is expected to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan this year, nearly doubling the size of the U.S. military presence there. European countries, however, have been reluctant to do more.
"We are sincere in seeking your counsel," Biden said. "But there must be a comprehensive strategy in which we all take responsibility."