Obama's Balancing Act With Russian Relations

The administration wants to have good relationships with Russia and Russia's foes.

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Does President Obama's "reset" of Russian relations mean that Washington will sell out its allies in the region? Vice President Joe Biden's recent trip to Ukraine and Georgia was billed as a an attempt to reassure the two pro-U.S. governments on Russia's doorstep that Washington isn't going to leave them hanging as it tries to repair frayed ties with their nemesis, Moscow. And it showed that the administration believes that it can achieve an uneasy balance of good relations with both Russia and Russia's foes.

But Biden's trip gave political leaders in Kiev and Tbilisi reasons for concern. That Obama had visited Moscow earlier and it was his second-in-command who went to Ukraine and Georgia illustrated which relationship was most important. And Biden's words implied a tough-love approach not always evident in Bush administration rhetoric.

Biden sharply criticized Ukraine's bickering pro-Western leaders, saying that Taras Shevchenko, a 19th-century Ukrainian national hero, would wonder "why the government was not exhibiting the same political maturity as the people." And he said that the leaders of Georgia—a country that Bush called "a beacon of democracy"—need to strengthen their dedication to democracy. (Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, apparently anticipated the message, announcing political reforms on the eve of Biden's visit.)

But Biden also repeatedly spoke in support of Georgia's and Ukraine's "independence"—apparently referring to their right to conduct foreign policy without interference from Russia. (The larger neighbor has occupied two parts of Georgia since the two countries briefly warred last year and regularly uses its near monopoly on natural gas to bully Ukraine.) "I know that some are concerned, and I understand it, that our efforts to reset relations with Russia will come at the expense of Georgia," Biden told the Georgian parliament. "Let me be clear: They have not, they will not, and they cannot."

So far, the Obama administration hasn't indicated specifically how it will support Georgia and Ukraine. Saakashvili, claiming that Russia is itching for another war, asked for "defensive" weapons like antiaircraft and antitank systems. Biden joked about the request—"I told you there was no such thing as a free dinner in Georgia"—but was noncommittal. The eventual answer will be a key indicator of how far Washington is willing to go to support Tbilisi.

The increased emphasis on Georgia's and Ukraine's own responsibilities is a welcome change from the Bush administration, which focused on their roles as U.S. security allies and overlooked their spotty domestic records, Cory Welt of Georgetown University's Eurasian Strategy Project says. "The emphasis on partnership based on actions that the countries themselves take is an important one and one that should have been articulated consistently throughout our relations but perhaps wasn't made as clear in the last few years," he says.

But the Obama administration's balancing act will be difficult to pull off, Welt says. "As soon as the Russians resist parts of our policy, that will be the time that the policy will be tested." Maintaining a balance is an optimistic goal and one that Moscow will surely test sooner rather than later.