Relations with Russia


VICE-PRESIDENT Joe Biden’s visits to Ukraine and Georgia last week were intended to assure these states of continuing US commitment to their security and welfare without annoying Russia too much about external interference in its neighbours’ affairs.

While he was there he carefully heeded that balanced approach. But he then gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal on his return journey in which he said: “Russia has to make some very difficult, calculated decisions. They have a shrinking population base, they have a withering economy, they have a banking sector and structure that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years, they’re in a situation where the world is changing before them and they’re clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable”.

Not surprisingly the Russians were nonplussed: Who is speaking officially for the US, Mr Obama or Mr Biden? American commentators are reminded of Mr Biden’s predecessor, Dick Cheney. Secretary of state Hillary Clinton has now assured them that Mr Obama’s desire to “reset” relations with Russia, announced earlier this month in Moscow, stands. President Obama wants to re-engage with Russia rather than contain it, as he explained on that visit. He emphasised democratic values, the rule of law and the need to cast aside obsolete doctrines on the balance of power, spheres of influence and zero-sum relations between the two powers. Mr Obama wants to gain their support for his policies on Iran, Afghanistan and energy planning. Agreements on reducing nuclear warheads and missile systems by one-third have got their relations off to a good start. But Mr Biden’s comments underline that the real balance of power between them has hugely changed.

This high-level US diplomacy brings the Obama administration closer to most European thinking on relations with Russia. But his realist view that it is better to engage Russia’s rulers is less attractive for post-Soviet and post-Warsaw pact states now members of the EU. They remain deeply suspicious that Russia wants to preserve and expand its sphere of influence and must be prevented from doing so by a strong security system. The EU should be able to influence the course of this policy-making more if the Lisbon Treaty is ratified, since that would strengthen its capacity for common action. But this will come only with greater political coherence about how best to engage with Russia. Ukraine and Georgia aspire to join the EU too, but have a long way to go before they are ready for that.