Anxiety and Recommitment in Russia’s Neighborhood

An unusual episode in international politics took place last week, days before Vice President Joe Biden embarked on his trip to Ukraine and Georgia this Monday. Several former politicians and other prominent figures from Eastern and Central Europe, including former Polish President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa and former Czech President and Playwright Vaclav Havel, issued an open letter to the Obama administration in the wake of President Barack Obama’s trip to Moscow. The letter essentially represents a plea not to be forgotten by the administration in its foreign policy as it “resets” its relationship with Russia. They write: “We see that Central and Eastern European countries are no longer at the heart of American foreign policy. As the new Obama administration sets its foreign-policy priorities, our region is one part of the world that Americans have largely stopped worrying about.”

This letter is somewhat strange coming from former leaders of EU member states and NATO allies. But it nonetheless reflects genuine anxiety in Eastern and Central Europe that, as former Czech Minister Alexandr Vondra told the New York Times, “Our interest in keeping the trans-Atlantic bond could be somehow sold out to the relationship with Russia.”

This anxiety appears to be shared by political elites in Ukraine and Georgia, although perhaps more so in the latter. They worry that the administration’s new approach to relations with Moscow amounts to a “Russia first” policy in the former Soviet region—that the United States has prioritized Russia over her neighbors. They too fear a “grand bargain” whereby the United States gives Russia a free hand in the region in return for cooperation on other issues, such as the Iranian nuclear program.

Vice President Biden is visiting Kyiv, Ukraine, and Tbilisi, Georgia this week in part to alleviate those fears. Air Force Two touched down on Monday night in Kyiv. Biden will meet with the political leadership and opposition in both countries; visit with civil society groups; and deliver an address on U.S. policy toward the region.

Vice President Biden will assure political leadership in his talks that the United States will continue and strengthen our partnerships in the region. As we recommend in the Center’s recent report, “After the Reset: A Strategy and New Agenda for U.S. Russia Policy,” he should also emphasize the importance of cooperation with NATO for the purposes of furthering reform, especially military modernization; push leaders to follow through on specific reforms such as overhauling the energy sector in Ukraine and strengthening democratic institutions in Georgia; and urge Russia to adhere to its international commitments in the region, in particular the ceasefire accord that ended the August 2008 war with Georgia.

The vice president should use his speeches in Ukraine and Georgia to reaffirm U.S. commitment to partnership with these countries. But he should also make three additional points: that the United States does not make grand bargains or quid-pro-quos with Russia or any other state; that that engagement with Russia does not threaten our partnerships and alliances; and that an improved relationship between Washington and Moscow is in the interests of Russia’s neighbors.

The United States does not trade its allies and partners for the sake of increased cooperation with other countries. Even if it did, bargains on such issues as NATO membership are not possible in principle, since Washington does not unilaterally decide which countries become members of the alliance; that is largely a matter of whether the countries themselves live up to NATO standards. The same applies to missile defense in Eastern Europe—a concern mentioned in the open letter—which will be determined by the administration’s ongoing strategic review of these programs.

Vice President Biden should underline that there is no zero-sum equation between improvements in the U.S.-Russia relationship and the quality of our ties with other partners in the region and Europe as a whole. He can point to his visit and the initiatives he will propose as concrete evidence that the administration can “walk and chew gum at the same time”—we can have productive relations with Moscow and our NATO allies and other important partners.

Vice President Biden should also emphasize that improved relations between the United States and Russia are actually in the interest of Ukraine and Georgia and our European allies. The arms control, nonproliferation, and Afghanistan transit agreements directly contribute to all countries’ security. But warmer ties between the United States and Russia could also in the short term ratchet down tensions between the two countries and thus diminish the degree to which the former Soviet region is treated as a geopolitical battleground. This could over time diminish Russian attempts to manipulate Georgia and Ukraine’s domestic politics, since these efforts often stem from a perceived need to counter alleged U.S. machinations. In short, tensions in the region are likely to decrease when there is an environment of cooperation between the United States and Russia.

The fears of our allies and partners in the post-communist region are largely unfounded. The administration has no plans to “sacrifice” them for the sake of better relations with their Eastern neighbor—the United States does not engage in “grand bargains.” There is no trade-off between improved relations with Russia and strong partnerships and alliances with any other states. And those improved relations with Moscow are actually in the interests of our partners and allies. It will be up to Vice President Biden to make that message clear as he visits Kyiv and Tbilisi this week.

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