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.

By , Correspondent

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    US Vice President Joe Biden (l.) shakes hands with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, March 10. The talks in Moscow are expected to focus on missile defense cooperation and Russia's efforts to join the World Trade Organization.
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US Vice President Joe Biden, the man who coined the phrase "push the reset button" in reference to US-Russia relations, stopped by the Kremlin this week to check how the program was loading and propose some upgrades.

Though Mr. Biden's two-day visit to Moscow was unmarked by either controversy or any key achievement, he appears to have assured Russians that the US remains committed to the new relationship.

That confidence boost may be needed, because upcoming challenges include finding common ground on the thorny issue of Eurasian missile defense, inducting Russia into the World Trade Organization (WTO), expanding cooperation on regional problems like Iran and Afghanistan, and what to do about the turmoil shaking the Middle East.

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"The reset was a transition from a period of almost no constructive relations under George W. Bush to the normal and fruitful dialogue we see today," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal. He says the two-year reset brought major accomplishments, including the signing of the first post-cold war comprehensive arms control treaty, New START, a Russian end to arms sales to Iran, and Moscow's help in forging a resupply corridor for the embattled NATO mission in Afghanistan through former Soviet territory.

"The original list of things-to-do in the reset has been completed, and now the relationship must move ahead to fresh tasks," says Mr. Lukyanov. "Biden came to Moscow to set the agenda for the future."

Russia's WTO bid

Biden, who met with President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during his visit, had set trade and economic relations as his priority, including assisting Russia in overcoming the final hurdles to entering the WTO. Moscow's on-again-off-again bid to join the global trade regime appears to be serious this time, and Biden told Mr. Medvedev at a Kremlin meeting Wednesday that the US wants to be helpful in building economic bridges.

A US prod might be the only thing that could persuade Georgia to drop its stubborn objections to Russian membership. Since the WTO requires newcomers to be ratified by consensus, Georgia's stand over Russia's continued sponsorship of breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia could leave Moscow's application in limbo indefinitely.

"This is where we'll see if there can be practical give and take in this relationship," says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist with the Moscow daily Kommersant. "If the American side sends a strong signal to Georgia that it's time to be flexible and let Russia into the WTO, that will be taken in Moscow as very strong evidence that the reset is working."

Trade turnover between Russia and the US was just $23.5 billion last year, less than 4 percent of Russia's external commerce, but Biden told a meeting of business leaders in the future high-tech hub of Skolkovo that he embraces Medvedev's vision of modernizing Russia's economy and hopes the US will find ways to participate.

"We fully support President Medvedev's vision of a nation powered by innovation and human capital, and that we have a deep respect for the pool of talent and the passion of the Russian people," Biden said. "Indeed, we share a similar vision for our own nation."

In the Skolkovo meeting, Biden urged Kremlin leaders to redouble efforts against corruption, which according to some estimates swallows up about a quarter of Russia's GDP. He also called for less red tape, more transparent business rules, and fewer restrictions on foreign investment.

Abolishing visas?

But some Russian experts are scratching their heads over a quixotic suggestion made by Mr. Putin during a Thursday meeting with Biden that the US and Russia take the "historic step" of abolishing visas for travel between the two countries. "This would break all the old stereotypes between Russia and the United States," Putin said.

That doesn't seem to be a practical point for the near-term US-Russian agenda, says Mr. Strokan, since security agencies and powerful political interests on both sides are likely to staunchly oppose it. "What I see here is Putin trying to burnish his image. He knows that he is viewed abroad as a former KGB man, associated with the Iron Curtain and all that, so what better way to dispel that negative view than to publicly advocate tearing down those visa walls and letting people travel freely?" he says. "It's not a bad thing to talk about, but don't look for it to happen anytime soon."

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.

"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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