Biden in Moscow for talks but Libya may steal the show

Arab world turmoil could overshadow Vice President Biden's visit to Moscow. Medvedev is opposed establishing a no-fly zone in Libya.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Vice President of the United States Joe Biden (r.) and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev greet each other at the Gorky presidential residence outside Moscow, Russia, on Wednesday, March 9. The talks in Moscow are expected to focus on missile defense cooperation and Russia's efforts to join the World Trade Organization.

Vice President Joe Biden's two-day trip to Russia was planned as a routine temperature-taking exercise to set the stage for a possible Obama-Medvedev summit this summer here.

But Mideast turmoil and deliberations over a no-fly zone in Libya could overshadow issues like missile defense and Russia's hopes of joining the World Trade Organization as Mr. Biden meets with President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin throughout the next two days.

Libya is on the agenda when Biden and Mr. Medvedev meet, and Russia's opposition to a no-fly zone will likely be a point of discussion. While the US has expressed reservations about imposing a no-fly zone, Russia has been adamant in its opposition.

Still, Russia has enjoyed some benefit from the Mideast upheavals, especially unrest in Libya, which is a major oil exporter. As oil prices passed $100 a barrel on news of the Arab revolts, Russia has seen profits climb. At a televised meeting with Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin last week, a visibly pleased Putin announced that Russian "budget revenues have become considerable" as a result of the conflict.

To be sure, the Kremlin appears to prefer the status quo in the Arab world. It has displayed deep suspicion of the popular movements that aim to unseat authoritarian regimes. Mr. Putin worried aloud recently that the revolutionary contagion could spread to Russia's own 20 percent Muslim minority, especially the insurgency-plagued northern Caucasus.

"Regardless of the calming theories that radical groups coming to power in northern Africa is unlikely, if it happens it cannot but spread to other areas of the world, including the north Caucasus," he said.

Moscow, which has $4 billion in outstanding arms contracts with Libya, reluctantly agreed to back sanctions against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi but is against plans to actively prevent him from deploying air power against rebel groups.

"A ban on the national air force or civil aviation to fly over their own territory is still a serious interference into the domestic affairs of another country," Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, said this week.

Britain and France are pushing for the United Nations to establish a no-fly zone over Libya, and as bloodshed escalates there the US appears to be giving more consideration to the option. Any UN Security Council authorization, however, would require support from Russia, a veto-holding member.

"The basic instinct of Russian leaders, from Soviet times on, has been to support existing regimes against popular revolts," says Georgi Mirsky, an expert with the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow. "They want to wait and see what happens with Qaddafi. It's unclear how things are going to end, and Russian leaders would like to give Qaddafi a way out if they can."

But some Russian experts suggest that if the US decides to back the idea of imposing a no-fly zone over Libya, the Kremlin may be induced to support it as part of their efforts to crank up the warmth in US-Russian relations.

"It's clear there's a problem [in Libya] that has to be solved," says Gleb Pavlovsky, head of the Effective Policy Foundation, a Kremlin-connected think tank. "On principle, Russia supports escalating sanctions, and might accept a no-fly zone in the future. But such measures should not be taken unilaterally by any one group of countries. It would require general consensus for anything we do."

On Wednesday, Biden visited Medvedev's pet project of Skolkovo – billed as Russia's Silicon Valley, where he called for firmer Russian action against corruption, and will hold substantive talks with Putin and Medvedev later Wednesday and Thursday.

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