Moscow Welcomes 'Reset' of U.S. Ties

APKiev's Yulia Tymoshenko, Berlin's Angela Merkel and Paris' Nicolas Sarkozy. ��
The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has made a first crucial step toward breaking the ice between Washington and Moscow, winning carefully worded approval from the Russian government.

Vice President Joe Biden told an annual security conference in Munich this weekend that relations with Russia would be given a new start, signaling a break with the presidency of George W. Bush, which saw ties spiraling to post-Cold War lows.

"It is time to press the reset button and to revisit the many areas where we can and should be working together with Russia," Biden said Saturday, according to a transcript published on the U.S. State Department's web site.

Biden was speaking at the same conference where two years ago then-President Vladimir Putin harshly attacked Washington's foreign policy. Putin's "Munich speech" later became synonymous with the Kremlin's growing assertiveness and troubled ties with the United States.

Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said Sunday that Biden's speech was very positive and that he most liked the comments about "restarting the button."

But, asked at the conference whether Russia would also take a step toward breaking the ice, Ivanov said, "This is not an oriental bazaar, and we do not trade the way people do in a bazaar," news agencies reported. He spoke after meeting Biden earlier in the day.

A Kremlin spokesman said Sunday that President Dmitry Medvedev would not comment on Biden's speech.

While Biden reached out to Moscow in his highly anticipated speech, which provided the first outline of the new administration's foreign policy, he did not offer any major concessions.

"We will not agree with Russia on everything. For example, the United States will not recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states," he said in reference to Georgia's breakaway republics that Moscow recognized as independent after a five-day war last August.

"But the United States and Russia can disagree and still work together where our interests coincide," Biden said.

The vice president also did not back down on the most bitter dispute with Moscow: U.S. plans to deploy elements of a missile defense shield in Central Europe. Washington "will continue to develop missile defense to counter growing Iranian capability, provided that the technology is proven and that it is cost-effective," he said.

He did, however, say the United States would consult with its allies and Russia.

Obama has questioned the feasibility of the missile shield, which would be partially based in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Moscow has described the plans as a threat to its own security. The day after Obama was elected president, Medvedev announced that Russia would place Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, near the Polish border.


Michael Dadler / Reuters
Biden, left, meeting Ivanov in Munich for the Conference on Security Policy.
Ivanov took a more conciliatory tone in his conference speech Friday, reiterating that Russia would not deploy its Iskanders if the United States rethought its missile plans.

The election of a new U.S. president has led to a "window of opportunity," Ivanov said.

Speaking to reporters later, he said, "It is obvious that the new U.S. administration has a very strong desire to change, and that inspires optimism."

His comments were echoed by Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the State Duma's International Relations Committee. Biden's speech "was really a serious call to restart U.S. foreign policy including, clearly, Russian-American relations," he said in televised comments.

Despite widespread expectations of Washington moving toward a softer path, Moscow continued to send mixed signals to the Obama administration as late as last week.

Washington expressed concern about new reports that Russia was stepping up preparations to open military bases in Abkhazia. And Kyrgyzstan announced that it would close a key U.S. air base, which Washington said was the result of pressure from Moscow. (Stories, p. 5).

Speaking in Munich, Ivanov reiterated earlier Russian denials that Moscow had anything to do with the base closure, calling it "the decision of a sovereign state."

The Manas air base serves as a supply hub for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.

Biden also struck a friendlier tone on Iran, stressing that Washington was willing to talk directly with Teheran over its nuclear program.

Ivanov said this would be welcomed by Moscow.

Alexei Malashenko, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, said that while Biden's speech was a clear attempt to create a new atmosphere, not everyone in Moscow might be ready for this.

"There are hard-liners among the security services and the military who will continue to push a confrontational agenda and to lobby for higher budget spending in their sectors," Malashenko said.

He said Prime Minister Putin and his team would probably continue to follow a hawkish course toward the West — especially during the economic crisis. "They have blamed the United States for [the crisis], so they need that course," he said.