RFE/RL, October 23, 2009
With Brian Whitmore
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden says he believes he has successfully laid to rest fears that the White House's efforts to improve relations with Russia could come at the expense of Washington's allies in Eastern Europe.
Biden made his comments in an exclusive interview with RFE/RL at the conclusion of a three-day visit to Eastern European capitals, where there is widespread apprehension about U.S. President Barack Obama's "reset" policy with Russia.
"I think I settled that. I don't believe that's the case now," Biden told RFE/RL on October 23 at the U.S. ambassador's residence in the Czech capital, Prague.
"We want to [hit] the reset button. But we did not press the erase button, the memory erase button," Biden said, adding that the administration has "made it absolutely clear" to Moscow that it will not tolerate any attempt to carve out a sphere of influence in the former Soviet space.
In addition to Prague, Biden's tour also took him to Warsaw and Bucharest earlier in the week. Poland and the Czech Republic, specifically, are worried that the U.S. administration's recent reconfiguration of its plans to base components of a missile-defense system in those countries represented a capitulation to Moscow.
The vice president also addressed fears in Eastern Europe that the Obama administration is neglecting the region, saying that in order for the United States to meet its "incredible, universal, worldwide obligations...we need a secure, whole, free Europe that is expanding."
In a wide-ranging interview, the vice president also commented on developments in Russia, the South Caucasus, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran.
Biden said Russia was at "one of those inflection points in history" where it was "deciding on its new identity, its new role." He added that he believed Moscow could move beyond the authoritarian rule and confrontational foreign policy that has prevailed in the Kremlin for the past decade.
"I look at Russia with eyes wide open, as a realist," Biden said. "And my expectation is that Russia will decide over the next decade that its interests lie in more integration, rather than what some in Russia seem to be thinking may be a different course. We just need to keep the dialogue going. But there are certain things that are not up for compromise with us."
The vice president also struck an upbeat tone regarding the volatile South Caucasus region, despite Russia's consolidation of its dominance over Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Biden pointed to Turkey's recent rapprochement with longtime foe Armenia, and progress toward a settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan on Nagorno-Karabakh, as causes for optimism.
"What's happening, from my perspective, is that people in the [South Caucasus] region are beginning to understand that their self-interest lies in greater cooperation now. Not out of love and affection, but out of necessity and opportunity," the vice president said.
Support For Afghanistan
Regarding Afghanistan, Biden dismissed as "not true" press reports suggesting that the administration's special envoy Richard Holbrooke is not welcome in Kabul. Holbrooke reportedly has had a strained relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Biden also praised Karzai for agreeing to a November 7 runoff with his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, in Afghanistan's presidential election.
"The question is the trust of the Afghan people, and I think he has begun that process by agreeing to a runoff," Biden said. "This is about the Afghan people. This is not about us."
Biden said that, in Pakistan, he sees progress in the fight against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, despite the rising insecurity in the wake of major military offensives this year.
"The fact of the matter is, the new military operation is in direct response to the real, legitimate threats they see," Biden said, stressing that one positive sign is an agreement on a common policy between Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif.
"The [Pakistani] military is acting appropriately and they face a very difficult problem," Biden said.
Biden stressed that while the United States will continue assisting Pakistan in its efforts to fight violent extremism, Washington has no plans to send military forces to that country.
"We are prepared to be of whatever assistance they want us to be, not in terms of American forces, but in providing for their ability to deal with that," Biden said.
On Iran, Biden said that "we never have, and we never will" ignore concerns about democracy and human rights while negotiating the nuclear issue with Tehran.
"We believe that the bulk of the people of Iran are friendly toward the United States. They are not hostile, and they are going through a difficult period of deciding how to deal with their own government right now," Biden said.
"But it is in the interest of the world, it is in the interest in the people of Iran, it is in the interest of the people of Europe and the world, that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon," he said.