Biden’s Visit to Ukraine, Georgia Comes Amid Growing ‘Nervousness’ Over Obama’s Approach to Russia
Arriving Monday evening in Kiev, Biden was due to spend Tuesday and half of Wednesday in Ukraine before flying to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, for a 25-hour visit.
The two former Soviet states aspire to join NATO, and the U.S. government says it supports their right to become members if their citizens want to do so.
But the Kremlin regards Georgia and Ukraine, both of which border Russia, as part of its zone of influence and is rejects further NATO expansion.
It also strongly opposes U.S. proposals to deploy missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, a shield the Pentagon says would be designed to protect against an Iranian missile threat. The Obama administration is reviewing the plan, and has hinted at the possibility that it may be shelved.
President Obama’s expressed desire to “reset” ties with Moscow, has set off alarm bells in the region 20 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain – and not only in the two countries Biden is visiting.
“Our alliance with America is today undergoing its perhaps most severe test since the fall of communism,” Polish President Lech Kaczynski said in a statement late last week.
“Improving relations between the West and Russia is definitely required, but this cannot be at any price,” Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza paper quoted him as saying. “It cannot lead effectively to unilateral concessions.”
Kaczynski said any concession to Russia on the missile defense issue would “undermine the credibility of the United States in Central and Eastern Europe.”
The conservative Polish leader also endorsed a letter to Obama signed by 22 of the region’s most prominent figures, among them former leaders including Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic, Lech Walesa of Poland and Vaira Vike-Freiberga of Latvia.
The writers expressed concern that their region was “no longer at the heart of American foreign policy” at a time when “storm clouds are starting to gather on the foreign policy horizon.”
“Many countries were deeply disturbed to see the Atlantic alliance stand by” when Russia invaded Georgia last summer, the signatories wrote. “Although we are full members, people question whether NATO would be willing and able to come to our defense in some future crises.”
The writers described Russia as “a revisionist power pursuing a 19th-century agenda with 21st-century tactics and methods.”
“It uses overt and covert means of economic warfare, ranging from energy blockades and politically motivated investments to bribery and media manipulation in order to advance its interests and to challenge the transatlantic orientation of Central and Eastern Europe.”
They said they welcomed Obama’s attempt to “reset” relations with Russia – “but there is also nervousness in our capitals. We want to ensure that too narrow an understanding of Western interests does not lead to the wrong concessions to Russia.”
Ahead of Biden’s trip, his national security advisor in a briefing said the vice-president would during his visit restate his position and Obama’s, that “our efforts to reset relations with Russia will not come at the expense of any other country.”
“This is not, for us, a zero-sum game,” Tony Blinken said. “We will continue to reject the notion of spheres of influence, and we will continue to stand by the principle that sovereign democracies have the right to make their own decisions and choose their own partnerships and alliances.”
Located between Russia and the European Union and a key transit route for Russian energy supplies heading to the E.U., Ukraine has frequently found itself at odds with Russia since the 2004 “Orange Revolution” brought Western-leaning President Viktor Yushchenko to power, at the expense of his Russian-backed rival, Viktor Yanukovich.
Ukraine’s position as both a customer of and conduit for Russian natural gas has left it vulnerable, and spats with Moscow have on several occasions resulted in mid-winter cuts, affecting Ukraine as well as countries to the West heavily dependent on the energy supplies.
Blinken said Biden's visit would focus heavily on energy, which for Ukraine was not only an economic issue, but a national security issue as well.
The country has also experienced enduring political turmoil in recent years, especially marked by conflicts between Yushchenko and his former Orange Revolution ally, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Presidential elections are due to be held early next year, and the candidate favored by Moscow, Yanukovich, has a significant opinion poll lead over the incumbent.
Yanukovich last Friday reaffirmed his intention to revive Kiev’s “strategic partnership with Russia” if he wins, Ukraine’s UNIAN news agency reported. Biden was due Tuesday to meet with the four politicians likely to contest the election – Yushchenko, Yanukovich, Tymoshenko and an independent former cabinet minister and parliamentary speaker, Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
Blinken said the U.S. obviously did not have “favorites” but did have a strong desire for a fair and free process
Noting “political paralysis” in recent times, he said the U.S. hoped that in the months ahead Ukrainian leaders would “find a way to work closely together on the challenges that the country faces.”
Violating Georgia’s sovereignty
Biden’s visit to Georgia later this week comes almost a year after an ill-fated attempt by President Mikhail Saakashvili to restore government control over a pro-Moscow separatist region, South Ossetia, prompted Russian forces to invade.
The brief war ended with both South Ossetia and another breakaway province, Abkhazia, effectively under Russian control. Moscow subsequently recognized the two as “independent,” and forced the shutdown of two international monitoring missions – one run by the United Nations, the other by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Despite the assertion by U.S., European and NATO leaders that relations with Russia could not be “business as usual” following the war and subsequent conduct, suspension in cooperation with Moscow was short-lived.
Medvedev angered Georgia last week by visiting South Ossetia – a territory within Georgia’s internationally-recognized borders – without Tbilisi’s permission, just days after Obama said in Moscow that “Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity must be respected.”
In an equally provocative, and symbolic, move on Saturday, the Russian president invited the de facto leaders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to an informal gathering of Commonwealth of Independent States leaders.
Apart from Russia, only one other country, Nicaragua, has recognized the two Georgian territories’ independence.