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Biden's Moscow visit reaffirms US-Russia 'reset'

Vice President Biden's two-day visit to Russia was aimed at bolstering economic ties. He also called on the Kremlin to take a harder line against corruption.

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Biden came away from Moscow saying little on the contentious issue of missile defense, but the issue surely got an airing during his meetings with Medvedev and Putin. A joint Russian-NATO commission is due to report in June on ways the two sides might build a joint network to defend Russia and the West from rogue missile attacks, or build two separate systems that share data and exchange inspections. The key problem is to assuage Russian fears that any antimissile system that covers Eurasian airspace could be used to undermine Russia's Soviet-era nuclear deterrent.

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"The cold war is over, Russia and the US are no longer opponents, and we have a common interest in protection against threats from third parties," says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow.

"But as long as suspicion and mistrust pervade the relationship, we won't come up with practical ways of doing that," he says "It would be good to formally open negotiations, much as we did with New Start, to find a missile defense formula. Setting a concrete goal like that would boost confidence and give us something to work toward, even if the talks went on for years."

Washington backs stronger civil society

One potential controversy emerged when Biden met Thursday with beleaguered Russian human rights activists and assured them of Washington's ongoing support for a strong civil society. Oleg Orlov, head of Russia's largest human rights group Memorial, told journalists that Biden listened carefully to their list of woes, which include a crackdown on nongovernmental organizations, a string of unsolved murders of journalists and human rights workers, and tough restrictions on independent media.

Mr. Orlov said that Biden intimated that the US might punish the Kremlin for the lack of progress on rights. "Biden basically said that in one way or another Russia's accession to the WTO could depend ... to some degree on how certain human rights issues are being dealt with," Orlov said. "He was very receptive to our ideas."

But many Russian experts say the Obama administration has managed to remove a major source of acrimony with the Kremlin by creating a "two-track" approach to Russia, in which it engages with civil society activists but does not let that interfere with the official relationship.

"It was a big problem during the Bush years that the US seemed to threaten political or economic consequences because of Russian internal policies," says Strokan. "Now it's generally understood that visiting US officials will balance their official contacts by meeting with oppositionists, but that human rights and democracy issues will not be allowed to hamper the big strategic and economic deals."

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