US vice president continues “reset” in relations with visit to Moscow

US Vice President Joe Biden is in Moscow, two years after Russia and America decided to reset their relations.

On Wednesday Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev has held his first one-to-one meeting with US Vice President Joe Biden. Various hot issues have been on the agenda, including the missile defense in Europe, the political crisis in Libya, Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization, the US’s cancellation of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment and commercial relations between the two countries.

The meeting, which started in a one-to-one format, was later joined by US national security adviser Tony Blinken, US Ambassador to Russia John Beyrle, US Deputy Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak and other officials.

Earlier in the day, VP Biden met Russian businessmen in Skolkovo, Russia’s planned intellectual think-tank outside Moscow, where he also watched the signing of a contract between Aeroflot Russian Airlines and America’s Boeing for the purchase of eight wide-bodied Boeing 777 aircraft. Addressing the businessmen, Biden declared that American companies realize the benefits of free and transparent trade with Russia. But he warned that Russia still needed to "improve the investment climate, implement the rule of law and tackle endemic corruption".

Joe Biden was one of the key drivers of the change in direction of the relations between Moscow and Washington, and wants to upgrade what has already been achieved to a never-before-seen level.

It was Biden two years ago who introduced the famous phrase about the “reset button", describing President Obama’s efforts to improve relations with Russia.

This year’s visit to Moscow is an attempt to see where the relations stand midway through Obama’s presidential term and to achieve some progress in pushing that reset button.

The timing of the visit is perfect as it comes on the hills of the new strategic arms reduction treaty, New START, so the trip is seen by many as an attempt to expand into new dimensions of reset, with a particular focus on business issues this time.

There are still many touchy political affairs between two countries that are to be discussed by Joe Biden and Russian President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin.

One of them is the contentious issue of missile defense in Europe. After years of opposition, the US finally agreed to let Russia co-operate with NATO over plans to build anti-ballistic missile installations on the European continent.

It has been one of the biggest irritants between Washington and Moscow, since Russia believed it was not offered an appropriate level of co-operation.

However, the problem is now closer to being resolved, as the US office reports that as early as the end of this year the US could sign an agreement with Russia on joint work on anti-missile defense in Europe, which, the US believes, could be useful should Iran come up with the nuclear weapons.

As far as another issue, Russia’s accession in the World Trade Organization, is concerned, Moscow has sought this for a decade-and-a-half now. There have been officially many rounds of talks on the topic.

However, Moscow wants more than just the US’s support for its accession and believes one of the first things Washington could do is to cancel the notorious Jackson-Vanik Amendment, one of the remnants of the Cold War.

The current political crises in the Middle East and North Africa is also on the agenda, especially the situation with Libya, as the US together with the UK and France are considering imposing a no-fly zone over the country.

If the ban is imposed, that would mean that any aircraft that tries to take off in Libya can be shot down, and the anti-aircraft systems of Libya would be neutralized to make it safe for the NATO planes to patrol the area.

Russia is against that plan as it has right of veto on the UN Security Council. One of the possible aims of Joe Biden’s visit could be try to gain support from Russia on this delicate issue. However, on Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reiterated that Russia is against any intervention when it comes to Libya’s domestic affairs.

In recent days there have been much speculation in the media about the real purpose of the US vice president’s visit. One of the popular versions was that the visit is a sign from Barack Obama that he supports the candidacy of Dmitry Medvedev in the next presidential election.

However, the US Office dismissed those claims, saying that apart from meetings with the current political leaders Medvedev and Putin, on the second day of the trip Joe Biden will be also holding separate meetings with civil society leaders and the opposition leaders of Russia.

­Viktoria Panova from the Moscow State University of International Relations believes it is possible that Moscow may support some of the US proposals concerning the Middle East, as it already met the US half way on such issues as the military transit in Afghanistan and imposing tougher sanctions on Iran.

But Russia will be supporting it according to its interests, meaning that still Libya or any other Middle Eastern country has a way for its own development that should be decided by the country itself,” she argued.

As for the possible progress in Russia-US relations that may be reached during Biden’s visit, Panova claims that in the light of the forthcoming visit of Obama to Moscow, Biden may sign only some working agreements leaving more important decisions for the US president.

If there is anything like breakthrough, we should wait for Obama to come. Joe Biden is just preparing the ground for that,” Panova said.

­On the other hand, Igor Zevelev, political analyst and head of the Macarthur Foundation’s Moscow office, believes the visit will bring some concrete results, in particular, better understanding of the missile defense issue and a definite roadmap for Russia’s accession to the WTO.

Missile defense is a very important issue. There is a long way to go to find a mutually-acceptable agreement, because there are several options on the table. One of them is so-called ‘sector missile defense’, and some other proposals that will be discussed are some kind of ‘co-ordinated missile defense’. And I think that the visit might bring better understanding of the positions of the two countries,” explained Zevelev.

­Evgeny Volk, a Moscow-based political analyst, believes that Obama’s administration badly needs good relations with Russia at this moment in time.

“In fact, much depends on [the] Russian position as far as Afghanistan, Iran or [the] Middle East are concerned. Russia, of course, [in] establishing good relations with the United States in order to obtain [WTO] membership in 2011 after 17 years of very difficult negotiations to join this organization,” he said. "Vice President Biden's visit is designed to find more common ground on the key issues."

­Democrat strategist Chris Lapetina feels very positive about Joe Biden’s visit to Moscow. It is a gesture of collaboration in every sphere – foreign policy, commerce, and the response to terrorism, he believes.

The message should be very clear to the Russians and Americans: Russia and the United States now have much more in common than what separates us. We are both economic powers. The United States is a mature economic power, and Russia’s economy is growing. We need each other, as exhibited today by the Vice President having his meeting about the airplane deal that was done [meeting with Russia’s businessmen in Skolkovo]. We need Russia to be a part of the WTO, we need free trade with Russia. That message is being sent today,” says Lapetina.