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U.S. Vice President Kicks Off Finland, Russia, And 'Model' Moldova Visits

  • Heather Maher

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden shares a laugh with Finnish President Tarja Halonen at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden shares a laugh with Finnish President Tarja Halonen at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has arrived in Russia on the second leg of a weeklong, three-nation trip focused primarily on expanding U.S.-Russian ties but bookended by visits to Helsinki and European Union-hopeful Moldova.

Topping the agenda of discussions with Russian leaders will be the status of Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization, which Washington supports and has helped facilitate.

Biden's Russian itinerary officially begins with lunch on March 9 at the U.S. Embassy with American business leaders.

One the first leg of his trip, Biden arrived in Helsinki on March 7 ahead of meetings with Finnish President Tarja Halonen and Prime Minister Mari Kiviniemi. The White House had said the bilateral discussions would cover "a broad range of issues," including the war in Afghanistan -- where some 200 Finnish soldiers are serving the international coalition -- the EU, and environmentally friendly technology, in which Finland is a pioneer.

Gauging Results

Biden's contingent on March 9 travels to Skolkovo near Moscow, which Russian authorities tout as their own version of America's Silicon Valley, for a roundtable discussion with Russian business leaders. A dinner with President Dmitry Medvedev is also planned.

On March 10, Biden starts his day by meeting with Prime Minister Vladmir Putin and then holds separate meetings with opposition leaders and civil society leaders. Biden's last official stop in the Russian capital will be a speech on U.S.-Russian relations at Moscow State University.

On March 11, the U.S. vice president heads to Moldova for meetings with Prime Minister Vlad Filat and acting President Marian Lupu. He'll also deliver a speech that the White House said will signal U.S. support for "ongoing democratic and economic changes" in Moldova, which is one of Europe's poorest countries and wants closer ties with the EU.

But the focus of Biden's trip is Russia, where he'll spend the most time -- three nights and two full days. According to Biden's national security adviser, Tony Blinken, the goal of the vice president's trip to Moscow is to take stock of the reset in U.S.-Russian relations that President Barack Obama embarked on when he took office in 2009, which the White House and most policy analysts have judged a success.

"Today, two years later, we can see the practical and important results of the reset, including the New START treaty, the Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, much deeper collaboration on Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea -- what the president calls win-wins," Blinken said. "This trip for the vice president is an opportunity to take stock of the reset, what we've achieved, and where we hope to go next."

Helping With WTO

The White House's senior director for Russian and Eurasian affairs, Michael McFaul, said the focus is now on helping Moscow through the multilateral stage of the accession process, so it can meet its goal of joining the trade body later this year.

A sticking point in Russia's accession to the WTO is Georgia, which, as a member, has veto power. With Russian troops still stationed in the Georgian breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, relations between Tbilisi and Moscow are icy.

Part of the high-tech hub of Skolkovo, on the outskirts of Moscow
McFaul acknowledged that "there are definitely issues remaining" in terms of Russian and Georgian trade relations but signaled that the United States will not play the role of mediator.

"At the end of the day," McFaul said, Russia and Georgia's negotiations are "a bilateral issue."

Related to Moscow's WTO ambitions is the expansion of U.S.-Russian business ties, which Blinken said "are growing but [are] still far short of where they could be."

That's why Biden will sit down with American and Russian business leaders, as well as pay a visit to Russia's version of Silicon Valley -- the nascent high-tech hub of Skolkovo, just outside Moscow. Medvedev visited California's Silicon Valley in 2010 to try and woo U.S. companies to do business in Russia.

'Dual-Track' Philosophy

The reset in U.S.-Russian relations -- which were at a low point when Obama took office, just 18 months after the Russian-Georgian war of 2008 -- is underpinned by a philosophy the White House calls "dual track." That means forging agreements where interests converge and agreeing to disagree in areas where they don't.

Human rights activists have criticized the policy as overlooking serious abuses by the Russian government in exchange for cooperation on strategic issues like Iranian sanctions and arms control treaties.

McFaul defends the U.S. foreign policy approach as necessary, and not just with Russia. He points out that in Moscow, Biden will end his meeting with Putin and go straight into meetings with opposition leaders and civil society groups. The White House says it uses that engagement model with many countries.

"We see the vice president's trip," McFaul said, "as trying to expand into new dimensions of reset, with a particular focus on these nongovernmental pieces -- the business piece in particular, but also the time that he'll be spending with civil society -- to practice what we call, and the president calls, a dual-track engagement.

"This is a strategy we have with a lot of countries around the world. We believe in it firmly. And I think the structure of the vice president's schedule demonstrates that we're committed to that."

Biden will also raise the issue of missile defense with Putin and Medvedev. It's an area of potential cooperation Washington would like to see move forward, but Moscow's refusal to accept plans for a U.S. missile-defense system in Europe is standing in the way.

Still, McFaul said discussions during last fall's meeting between Obama and Medvedev in Yokohama, Japan, and the NATO-Russia Council meeting in Lisbon created what he called "a bit of a pivot" on missile-defense cooperation.

"We are, I think, on the verge of trying to take an issue that used to be extremely contentious between the United States and Russia and to try to see if we can make this an area of cooperation," McFaul said. "And the vice president's trip will be an important marker to see where we're at. And we hope that at some time this year we have agreement on that."

Moldova An 'Inspiration'

Biden's visit to Moldova on March 11 will be the first visit to that country by a U.S. president or vice president and is an attempt by the White House to show its support for Moldova's democratic progress in the last two years. Biden was invited by Filat in January 2010, after Filat held talks with Biden in Washington.

Blinken said the small country's progress serves as a model for other Eastern European countries who want to enact democratic reforms and move closer to the West.

Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden held talks in Washington in January 2010.
"The visit occurs in the context of Moldova celebrating 20 years of independence this year," Blinken said, "and especially a lot of hard work to build democracy and free markets, which has made it something of an inspiration in the region."

Blinken praised Moldova's decision to embark on what he called "difficult reforms" laid out by the Alliance for European Integration and said the United States "stands and supports the government [in Chisinau] as it sees those reforms through to completion. "

Blinken also said Biden will convey U.S. support for a resolution to the frozen conflict over Transdniester that "respects Moldova's sovereignty and territorial integrity."

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