Biden’s Moscow Trip and Ways Forward in U.S.-Russian Relations

It seems that Vice President Joseph R. Biden’s trip to Moscow was a success in that it achieved the goal of keeping the “reset” button pressed and moved our often difficult relations with Russia forward. This was accomplished even with some “hard” words about the climate for U.S. business and investment and the need for progress on human rights, advances in civil society and the need for more to be done on the rule of law.
During a speech at Moscow State University he criticized Russia’s legal and political systems.  Russians, he said, “want to be able to choose their national and local leaders in competitive elections. They want to be able to assemble freely, and they want the media to be independent of the state. And they want to live in a country that fights corruption. That’s democracy,” he said. “I urge all you students here: Don’t compromise on the basic elements of democracy. You need not make that Faustian bargain.”

Biden met with both President Dmitri A. Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, still seen as the true “strong man” in Russia.  In each case discussion focused on improving economic cooperation between the two countries and also on getting Russia into the World Trade Organization.  In the background was always the question of the Russian election in 2012 and if Putin will run again, and what the implications might be for the future. In the same way Russians wonder if Obama might not have a second term, and what that might mean for their own relations with America.
On the agenda was the proposed European missile defense system which will prove to be a difficult problem to get a solution both sides can live with.  Secretary of Defense Gates will be visiting Moscow on the 22nd and 23rd to address the specifics of any deal that might be possible.  If some progress can be made–and this is a long shot–it will be a major achievement for the Obama administration and for NATO-Russian cooperation.
Perhaps what was not said in public may be more important than what was said. That included cooperation on Iran, Afghanistan, the joint assessment of the upheavals in the Middle East and solutions to the “Georgia problem.”  Also, and of great importance will be the next steps after the New START agreement, especially dealing with tactical nuclear weapons. Let’s hope that will also be on the agenda during the Gates visit. The full agenda of increased economic cooperation, dealing with problem areas noted above and moving toward building down both nuclear weapons numbers and increasing stability seem to be just the right objectives for both sides – but getting there will require a lot of hard work.

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