Biden's Balancing Act in Georgia and Ukraine

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David Mdzinarishvili / REUTERS

Vice President Joe Biden attends a welcome ceremony in Tbilisi on July 23, 2009

The contrast was stark. When President Barack Obama touched down in Moscow earlier this month, there was little fanfare to mark his arrival. But when Vice President Joe Biden visited the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, two days ago, the road from the airport was crowded with people waving U.S. and Georgian flags. The welcome was so warm that Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta wondered if the Georgian government might rename a square after Biden — just as it had named a road "President George W. Bush" after the former President's visit to the country in 2005.

Biden's trip to Ukraine and Georgia was designed to balance Obama's Moscow visit. Washington wanted to reassure Russia's two neighbors that the U.S. has not forgotten them or their bids to join NATO without unduly annoying Moscow.

But the balancing act was always going to be a tough one. Moscow has long opposed NATO expansion and what it views as U.S. interference in its traditional backyard. So when, on the eve of Biden's visit, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili reportedly said he was negotiating a new arms deal with the U.S., Moscow grumbled. "We will continue to prevent the rearming of Saakashvili's regime and will take concrete measures against this," said Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin. "We have deep worries regarding the activity of the Georgian leadership over remilitarizing its country, which several states are responding to in a surprisingly calm and positive way."

Both the U.S. and Georgian governments later denied that any negotiations were being held. But State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said the U.S. had not ruled out rearming Georgia, whose military was crushed during its brief war with Russia last August. The possibility of such a deal, or even the discussion of it, puts the Obama Administration in a difficult position, forced to choose between a reset of relations with Russia or indulging Saakashvili's request. "It is a huge political mistake to support Saakashvili. By giving him weapons, the U.S. would be putting guns in the hands of a criminal," Sergei Markov, a Duma deputy and one of the chief ideologists of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's United Russia Party, told TIME in a phone interview from the Georgian breakaway republic of Abkhazia.

Biden expressed continued support for Georgia's push for NATO membership but was careful not to be pinned to any timetable. The Obama Administration wants to be able to say that it supports Georgia's goal, safe in the knowledge that the Europeans, who blocked it even when Bush pushed hard, will not allow it to happen. The Western European NATO countries see Saakashvili as unstable and impetuous, and blame him for presenting Moscow with a pretext for its military humbling of Georgia.

Biden also made plain that in terms of Georgia's breakaway regions, "there is no military option to reintegration ... Only a peaceful and prosperous Georgia has the prospect of restoring [its] territorial integrity by showing those in Abkhazia and South Ossetia a Georgia where they can be free and their communities can flourish."

In Ukraine, the Vice President spoke a little more freely, perhaps safe in the knowledge that President Viktor Yushchenko is increasingly embattled and that those who will likely eclipse him are less inclined to push ahead on the NATO front. "If you choose to be part of Euro-Atlantic integration — which I believe you have — then we strongly support that," Biden said in a speech after talks with Yushchenko. Biden also explicitly rejected Russia's "19th century" talk of spheres of influence. "We don't recognize, and I want to reiterate this, any spheres of influence. We do not recognize anyone else's right to dictate to any other country what alliance it should seek to belong to or what relationships, bilateral relationships, you have," Biden said.

But Moscow's idea of what influence means may well be different from Washington's. Nations should be allowed to choose their partners, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said, but "it is important that this be done transparently, without under-the-carpet games and not at the expense of others' interests." United Russia's Markov said Russia does not want a sphere of influence, but that historically, Russia has a "privileged interest" in Georgia and Ukraine and that in order for U.S.-Russian relations to be reset, "the U.S. has to recognize Russia's legitimate interests — that Russia has the right to not be surrounded by enemies, enemies that are controlled by Washington, but to be surrounded by friends, as all other countries strive to achieve."

Biden tried to reassure Ukrainian and Georgian leaders that better U.S. relations with Moscow could benefit their countries. "The more substantive relationship we have with Moscow, the more we can defuse the zero-sum thinking about our relations with Russia's neighbors," he said during a speech in Kiev. He also called on Yushchenko and Georgia's Saakashvili to heal rifts with their respective opposition parties and upbraided Ukraine and Georgia for the political infighting that has slowed reform.

Nikolai Petrov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, an independent think tank, said the trip "was pretty successful in the sense that he managed to reassure the leaders of these countries and to not make any statements which would seriously influence the Russian leadership." The problem in "Russian-American relations in this part of the world is to keep certain expectations and not to aggravate," he said.