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Will Rapport with Georgia, Ukraine, Damage US-Russian Ties?

By Andre de Nesnera
Washington
07 August 2009

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden recently visited Ukraine and Georgia. His trip came several weeks after President Barack Obama held a Moscow summit with his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Medvedev - a meeting with the main goal of resetting U.S.-Russian relations on a positive footing. Most analysts agree that was achieved.

Oksana Antonenko, an expert on the Caucasus region at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, says Biden's trip had a straight-forward objective.

"There were a number of countries, including Georgia and Ukraine, whose leaders were concerned about the reset in the U.S.-Russian relations, and whether this reset really means that there will be less support and less interest in the United States to support Georgia and Ukrain," he said. "And Biden's objective [with his trip to those two countries] was to send a very clear message, at least verbally, that the United States continues to view both Ukraine and Georgia as important strategic partners - and that the reset in relations with Russia is not going to take place at the expense of interests and relations of Ukraine and Georgia," he added.

But Robert Legvold at Columbia University says it won't be easy for the Obama administration to reset relations with Russia, without it coming at the expense of Georgia and Ukraine.

"It's not clear that the administration yet has that calibrated. There should be a way by which the administration can make progress in the relationship with Russia on a range of key issues, and it should be - indeed it is necessary - for the United States to have a strong supportive policy of Ukraine and Georgia," he said. "But the trick is to do that in a way in which the United States is not encouraging either country to balance against Russia, or to act in ways that are clearly designed to imply a U.S. alliance that is directed against Russia," said Legvold.

Legvold says Moscow must definitely improve its relations with Ukraine and Georgia.

"If Russian relations with Ukraine and particularly with Georgia remain as tense, or as unconstructive as they have been at points in the past, then I think it is going to be very difficult for the United States to manage what I earlier called this calibration of a positive policy toward Russia and a positive policy toward Ukraine and Georgia," he added.

David Marples, an expert on Ukraine at the University of Alberta, does not foresee better relations all around, especially with the current leadership of President Victor Yushchenko in Kiyev.

"While Yushchenko is president of Ukraine, it's practically impossible for relations to be good between the United States and both Russia and Ukraine. You can't even conceive of an occasion in which all three sides could come together and discuss things. And probably the situation with Georgia is even worse," he said.

Many analysts say it is unclear whether during his trip Vice President Biden allayed the fears of Ukrainian and Georgian leaders concerning Washington's warming of relations with Moscow.

But many experts are saying that the fact that President Obama went to Moscow and did not travel to Ukraine and Georgia, but sent Vice President Biden there instead - sent a definite message.

One of those analysts is Ronald Suny at the University of Chicago.

"It certainly is a signal - and we've made this clear repeatedly, even under the Bush administration - that the most important relationship is the relationship with Russia: a great big power, a very powerful energy supplier to Europe and elsewhere and a nuclear power. So Russia comes first. Now we'd love to have our cake and eat it, too," he said. "The United States would like both to have good relations with Russia, but contain Russia in the way it was able to do during the 1990s, during the [Boris] Yeltsin years," continued Suny.

That, says Suny, is no longer possible because Russia is a far more powerful and active player on the international scene than it was during the 1990s.

Analysts say it will be interesting to see if the Obama administration will be able to - as one expert put it - walk this diplomatic tightrope - and have good relations with Russia as well as countries like Ukraine and Georgia, which Moscow considers to be still in its sphere of influence.



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