KYIV -- There is a lot more to U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Ukraine and Georgia than just soothing nerves. That much was clear on day one.
Sure Biden did his best to calm the reset-phobia that has afflicted pro-Western politicians in these countries ever since U.S. President Barack Obama visited Moscow earlier this month. The mantra was repeated in Kyiv several times by Biden himself and other U.S. officials: “Resetting relations with Russian will not come at Ukraine’s expense.”
No doubt, we’ll hear more of the same in Tbilisi.
But in addition to the obligatory hand-holding, Biden is offering more than a little bit of tough love as well. The promise of the Rose and Orange revolutions, which swept pro-Western forces into power in these two countries, is still unfulfilled, U.S. officials say. And only Ukrainians and Georgians can take the hard steps necessary to remedy the situation.
In Ukraine, that means reforming its energy sector to make it more efficient and less dangerously dependent on Russian imports. This was a theme that came up again and again throughout the vice president’s first day in the Ukrainian capital.
“If Ukraine can get to the level of Poland in terms of energy efficiency, it would seriously cut its need for gas imports and this would significantly change its relationship with Russia,” a senior U.S. administration official told reporters.
This means tackling the corruption and bureaucratic red tape. It means weaning Ukrainian consumers off heavily subsidized natural gas and moving toward market prices. And it means making the necessary reforms to lure investors to modernize the country’s creaky pipeline system, which transports Russian gas to the Ukrainian market and to Western Europe.
“I know it's hard, I know it's hard, and these are tough decisions that your government has to make,” Biden said in remarks after meeting Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko.
“And I also know from experience of being in public life for a long time, it's harder to make tough decisions in election years.”
Biden also sought to prod Ukraine’s squabbling political leaders, whose constant bickering regularly paralyzes the political process here, to work together to achieve these goals.
“I told the President what I will tell other officials with whom I'll be meeting today, that working together, especially in times of crisis, is not a choice, it’s an absolute necessity. And compromise, I might add, is not a sign of weakness, it is evidence of strength,” Biden said.
And as if to underscore the point, Biden met not only with Yushchenko, but with each of the four other candidates seeking Ukraine’s presidency in next year’s elections: Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, parliamentary Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, Party of Regions leader Viktor Yanukovych, and Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a former parliamentary speaker and foreign minister turned opposition figure.
U.S. officials say the focus on energy is not aimed at undermining Russia’s dominance of the region’s market. But like the newly revitalized Nabucco pipeline project, it clearly would.
A modernized Ukrainian energy grid, paid for and managed by Western investors, would severely weaken Russia’s ability to leverage its oil and gas wealth to politically dominate its neighbors.
And Russia is certain to fight this like an alley cat, reset or no reset.
-- Brian Whitmore