MUNICH, Germany -- Differences between the United States and Russia have gone on sharp display at the annual Munich Security Conference.
U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden told the international gathering of top diplomats and defense officials that Washingon and Moscow "have serious differences on issues like Syria, missile defense, NATO enlargement, democracy, human rights."
"These differences are real," he said at the start of the second day of the event, "but we continue to see opportunities for the United States and Russia to partner in ways that advance our mutual security interest and the interest of the international community."
Speaking just days after the new U.S. administration began its second term, he also restated Washington's position that it does not recognize spheres of influence. He cited the case of two breakaway Georgian republics whose independence Russia recognized following its brief war with Georgia in 2008.
"The United States will not recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states," Biden said. "We will not recognize any nation having a sphere of influence. It will remain America's view that sovereign states have the right to make their own decisions and choose their own alliances."
Biden tempered his remarks by noting that the United States and Russia have many common interests, including reducing the size of their nuclear arsenals and boosting trade and investment for their mutual prosperity.
No Calls For A 'Reset'
But his underlining of differences suggested a different mood than four years ago, when Biden called at the same conference for a reset in U.S.-Russian relations at the start of U.S. President Barack Obama's first term.
Recent months have seen rising tensions between the two countries as Russian authorities have taken new initiatives cracking down on pro-democracy groups. The initiatives include putting an end to civil society initiatives supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Russia.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, too, stressed differences between Moscow and Washington and its allies as he addressed the conference.
He charged NATO with having a "bloc-based" security policy in Europe. He said NATO was seeking to improve security "at the expense of others" and that a bloc-based mind-set contravenes "open systems and security for all."
"Russia proposes a simple and constructive path," Lavrov said, "to agree on strict guarantees that the United States' global missile-defense system is not aimed at any member state of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) and to work out clear military and technical criteria to assess whether the missile shield's capability matches its stated purpose, which is neutralizing missile threats from outside the Euro-Atlantic region."
At Odds In The Middle East
The differences between Washington and Moscow were also clearly stated over Syria.
Biden met later in the day, on the sidelines of the conference, with leaders of the Syrian opposition.
At that meeting, he reportedly reiterated Washington's continued support for the Syrian opposition, saying Syria's autocratic ruler, President Bashar al-Assad, "must go," according to a White House statement. Biden also met with the UN and Arab League special representative on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, and praised Moaz al-Khatib, the president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, for his leadership as what the White House called the "legitimate representative of the Syrian people."
He had earlier indicated that the United States currently provided the Syrian opposition with more than $50 million in nonlethal assistance. He predicted that the "days ahead will be difficult" for Syria but that the "Syrian opposition continues to grow stronger."
In his remarks, Lavrov said Moscow has many questions about the Western approach to the Middle East, including the Arab Spring and Syria.
He said world powers should not impose external sets of values on countries and should abstain from "arbitrary, unilateral sanctions" in the absence of UN resolutions. He also said world powers should agree on stopping violence through inclusive dialogue.
Moscow has frequently criticized western support for the Syrian opposition and its calls for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a Russian ally, to step down as a prerequisite for peace talks.
After a meeting between Biden and Lavrov on the sidelines of the conference later in the day, the White House quoted Biden as having said U.S. and Russian leadership is "necessary" in order to resolve global policy challenges. Lavrov, also speaking after the talks, said "there will always be problems" in U.S.-Russia relations but that "they should be solved on the basis of equality and respect for each other's interests." Lavrov also said the two share interests when it comes to issues such as fighting terrorism.
The three-day security conference wraps up around midday on February 3.