Biden in Moldova: The U.S. Veep Ruffles Moscow — Nicely

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Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP

Vice President of the United States Joe Biden, left, shakes hands with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, March 10, 2011.

The tiny ex-Soviet state of Moldova had never gotten a visit from an American president, or even a vice president, so the arrival of Joe Biden on Friday was preceded with more than the usual fuss. Anyone living within firing range of Biden's route through the capital city, Chisinau, was ordered to lock up their guns. Manhole covers were soldered shut to make sure no bad guys could spring from the sewers. Volunteers handed out little American flags, and a rock concert was arranged to precede Biden's speech on the central Opera Square. But the excitement was not shared by officials watching from Moscow. For them, it all looked annoyingly familiar, like a throwback to the years of President George W. Bush.

In the Bush era, nothing had angered the Kremlin more than the so-called "color revolutions" that overthrew three governments loyal to Moscow in the span of three years: Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004 and Kyrgyzstan in 2005. Each uprising enjoyed American support, and a top official from the Bush White House (or in the case of Georgia, Bush himself) would always swoop in afterward with promises of partnership for the budding new democracy in Russia's backyard. When Barack Obama took office, this was the first American habit that was supposed to change under the new "reset" policy in U.S-Russian relations.

But then came Moldova's uprising in 2009 — the first one ever to be dubbed a "Twitter Revolution". Tens of thousands rallied that summer in Chisinau against the pro-Russian Communist Party, which soon ceded power to a new ruling coalition: The Alliance for European Integration, or AEI.

Washington's support was not nearly as forceful in that revolt as it had been during the others, but when Biden visited Chisinau on Friday, he drove home the point that Moldova was following the bright example of Georgia and Ukraine. "America will walk with you on this journey you've undertaken for a simple reason," Biden told the crowd of several thousand gathered on Opera Square. "A successful Moldova will benefit this region; it will benefit Europe; and it will benefit the United States of America."

But it will not necessarily benefit Russia. The Moldovan revolt, in Moscow's eyes, looks like yet another western attempt to yank a former Soviet state out of Russia's political orbit. And this one is particularly annoying, because Moldova is still home to a Russian military contingent, as well as a large cache of Soviet-era weaponry guarded by Russian troops.

"So it is clear that the Americans' global strategy has stayed the same under Obama," says Konstantin Kosachyov, the chairman of the foreign relations committee in Russia's parliament. "[The U.S.] still has interests everywhere, and in order to secure those interests, it has to have its hand on the wheels everywhere," Kosachyov tells TIME. "In this sense, nothing principally changed since the era of Bush, or for that matter Reagan or Truman."

But there was at least a cosmetic difference in the fact that Biden first paid a visit to Moscow last week before heading off to Moldova, and at his meetings with Russia's leaders, he took care to assuage their egos. "For my entire career, when I sat with a Russian leader, I was sitting with the most powerful man, or one of the most powerful men in the world, and that is how we still think of you," he told President Dmitry Medvedev on March 9. The next day, he told Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, "When other countries around the world have a problem, they either go to Moscow or to Washington, they don't go to other capitals."

And that may be true, but on Friday, the prime minister of Moldova, Vladimir Filat, made clear that when it comes to his country's biggest problem — the frozen conflict in its breakaway region of Transnistria, which still houses about 1,500 Russian troops — he would now be turning to Washington. "We do need the support of the United States in the settlement of the Transnistrian conflict," he told Biden, who graciously agreed to lend a hand during his speech on Opera Square. "On Transnistria, America has supported and will continue to support a settlement — not any settlement, but a settlement that preserves Moldova's sovereignty and territorial integrity within your internationally recognized borders."

In effect, this would mean the Russian troops who buttress the separatist regime in Transnistria would have to go home, and the territory — a hold-out of fervent Russian nationalism inside Moldova — would have to be handed over to the new pro-Western government in Chisinau. That is not something that Moscow would easily agree to do, especially if the United States starts getting too involved, says Matthew Rojansky, deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington. "If Biden comes on too strong in saying that America is taking little Moldova under its wing...he will definitely empower the wrong sorts of forces on the Russian side."

In some ways, Biden's speech (which echoed Bush's pep talk to Georgia in 2005) did seem to imply that Moldova would be America's new pet project, especially when he stated: "I promise you, America will be your partner." But many observers believe that Biden's preemptive flattery of the Russian leadership will prevent his trip to Moldova from becoming the start of a confrontation. "For the Russians this is probably the most important thing: to be taken seriously, to be asked for permission inside its sphere of influence, to be treated as America's equal," says Alexander Rahr, head of the Russia and Eurasia program at the German Council on Foreign Relations. "Such phrases allow Biden to get away with a lot in Russia and in the former Soviet space."

Kosachyov, the Russian parliamentarian, grudgingly agrees. The Bush administration, he says, pursued its interests in Russia's backyard "brashly and without giving a damn for what anybody else thought," while the Obama team tries to act "delicately and without bombast." So it's very unlikely, he says, that Moldova will hamper the reset, in part because supporting Transnistria has given Russia more trouble than it's worth — "like carrying around a suitcase without a handle." But Moscow would still prefer for the United States to stay away, Kosachyov adds. "We can handle it without the Americans." The question now is whether Washington will be content to stay on the sidelines this time. After Biden's visit, it doesn't seem likely.