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Biden pledges U.S. support for Georgia in tempered speech

The vice president avoids anti-Russia rhetoric and walks a fine line addressing still simmering tensions between Moscow and its pro-Western neighbors.

July 24, 2009|Megan K. Stack

MOSCOW — Vice President Joe Biden stood before the Georgian parliament, vowing support for a small, struggling, pro-Western country in its clashes with Moscow. Russian officials rejoined with threats and veiled accusations of American tampering.

On the surface, it looked very much like the status quo: Washington and Moscow jousting for influence in the former Soviet space. But beneath the sweeping pledges of solidarity uttered by Biden this week in Georgia and Ukraine, there lurked anxiety that the Obama administration was pulling back from the unstinting support the two governments received from President Bush.

Biden brought none of the blunt, anti-Kremlin rhetoric famously used by his predecessor, Dick Cheney, to stir Eastern European sentiments. And he abandoned the tone of shared grievance against Russia that, until recently, inflected U.S. dealings with Georgia and Ukraine.

Instead, the vice president delivered a series of statements carefully crafted to reflect the idea that American alliances with Russia and its pro-Western neighbors should not be mutually exclusive.

Biden made a point of visiting with the political opposition in Georgia and Ukraine, emphasizing support for the nations over backing for particular officials. He tempered his speeches with sober injections of reality, chiding the perpetually feuding Ukrainian leadership for political immaturity and calling on the Georgian government to undertake democratic reforms.

Nearly a year after Georgia's brief but shattering war with Russia -- which proved Russia's willingness to use military force to bring troublesome neighbors to heel and emerged as a watershed of bitter relations between Washington and Moscow -- Biden promised to maintain steady support for Georgia.

But he also urged Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to respond to criticism of heavy-handed rule with more transparency and democracy, and pointedly warned against the use of force to regain control of Georgia's breakaway republics.

"We will stand with you," Biden told lawmakers. "I know there is some concern, and I understand it, that our efforts to reset relations with Russia will come at the expense of Georgia. Let me be clear: They have not, they will not and they cannot."

Biden called for Moscow to withdraw its troops from the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and urged other nations to refuse to join Russia in recognizing the republics as independent states. But there was no sign that Washington intended to send weapons or join the European Union observer mission that patrols the edges of the republics, as some Georgian officials have hoped.

Moscow, meanwhile, kept a sharp eye on Biden's trip, which comes as a much-anticipated second act to President Obama's fence-mending visit to Moscow this month.

Russian officials have been suspicious that the United States might help revive the Georgian army, which was crushed by Russian bombardment. On Thursday, hours before Biden's speech, Moscow issued a new warning against replenishing Georgia's troops.

"We are deeply worried about the Georgian leadership's efforts to remilitarize the country, which has been met by some governments with surprising calm, and even a positive reaction," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told the ITAR-Tass news agency. "We will continue to prevent the rearmament of Saakashvili's regime. We will take concrete measures for that."

Russian news reports described Saakashvili, in the words of one state newscaster, as "eager to get his hands on more U.S. weapons."

Tensions are still high in Georgia, especially along the borders between Georgia proper and the heavily Russian-occupied breakaway republics. Speculation in both countries has been that fighting could recur this summer, with each side portraying the other as the likely aggressor.

Moscow is deeply aggrieved over what it sees as U.S. tampering in Georgia and Ukraine, which many Russians believe should remain under the thumb of Moscow. But the issue was conspicuously ignored when Obama visited Russia.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is grappling with a prickly stalemate inherited from Bush: on the one hand, an empowered Russia that has come to view the United States as a geopolitical foe; on the other, staunchly pro-American governments mired in virulent street opposition (Georgia), plummeting public approval (Ukraine) and accusations of mismanagement (both).

Biden's carefully calibrated visit added to the sense that Washington is ready, for the moment, to tone down what is now mutual antagonism. U.S. foreign policy is focused on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, instability in Pakistan and hostile relations with nuclear powers in Iran and North Korea. Moscow could help in those arenas, particularly in Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea.

Many analysts think Washington will continue to give financial and diplomatic aid to Ukraine and Georgia but that the alliances will be secondary, for now, to patching up differences with Moscow.

"This is a clear shift of policy," said Masha Lipman, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "Some people may say that America has abandoned Georgia and Ukraine. But there's clearly a compromise and a desire to drift away from this zero-sum game."


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