U.S. Vice President Joe Biden held talks today with Kremlin leaders and assured his hosts of Washington's support for Russian membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Biden held his first one-on-one meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at his suburban Moscow residence in Gorki during a visit that will also see him hold talks with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on March 10.
Earlier, Biden met First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov and said, "We are actively working to finish up the process in 2011" regarding Russia's joining the WTO.
Russia, the largest economy outside the WTO, has been seeking to enter the organization for 18 years.
Advocates believe Russia's entry into the WTO will help foster more stability in the country and make its rapprochement with the United States more impervious to political tensions by bolstering economic ties. But membership remains uncertain and could be derailed by Georgia, which fought a brief war with Russia in 2008 over its pro-Russian separatist region of South Ossetia. Georgia, as a WTO member, has veto power.
Biden and Shuvalov today oversaw the signing of a deal between Russian airline Aeroflot and U.S. plane manufacturer Boeing, under which Aeroflot is to purchase eight long-range Boeing B-777 planes for $2.2 billion.
Build On The 'Reset'
Biden's visit to Russia is intended to build on the "reset" in bilateral ties initiated by President Barack Obama two years ago.
The two days of talks, according to Biden's national security adviser Tony Blinken, are "an opportunity to take stock of the reset" -- a term coined by Biden himself -- and discuss where both countries "hope to go next."
Biden (top left) and Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov (top right) look at Sergei Kravchenko (left), director of Boeing Russia, and the CEO of Aeroflot Vitaly Saveliev (right) as they sign the contract.
Biden's visit comes just weeks after the New START treaty, signed by Obama and Medvedev in April 2010 and ratified by lawmakers last month, came into force. Under the new pact, Russia and the United States commit to new limits on their nuclear arsenals.
The two countries must now bridge their differences over Washington's project to deploy a missile-defense system in Europe, which it says is needed to counter possible attacks by rogue states like Iran.Joint Control
Obama has scaled down missile-defense plans proposed by his predecessor, George W. Bush, a move that helped appease Russian concerns and secure Moscow's approval for new sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.
But Russia remains wary of U.S. missile-defense plans and is asking for joint control of any antiballistic system installed in Europe by the United States and NATO. Medvedev last year warned that his country may deploy new offensive weapons if its demands were not heeded.
Biden and his Russian hosts are also expected to discuss the political turmoil sweeping the Arab world. Moscow is likely to voice its opposition to military action against Libyan leaders, which Washington has been mulling.
'Looking For Assurances'
In a bid to underscore U.S. hopes for improved economic ties, Biden met with business leaders at the Moscow suburb of Skolkovo, where authorities are building what they tout as Russia's future version of Silicon Valley.
Russia, he told his audience, must crack down on corruption and improve its legal system to attract investment.
"Investors are looking for assurances that the legal system treats them fairly and acts on their concerns swiftly," he said.
His visit to Skolkovo mirrors Medvedev's visit to Silicon Valley last year. Critics of the Skolkovo project, however, reject the analogy, saying Silicon Valley grew naturally on the basis of existing universities rather than being created from scratch by the government.
Biden said the White House is in favor of scrapping the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a set of U.S. Cold-War restriction on trade with Russia.
On March 10, Biden will meet some of Russia's human rights campaigners and will cap his visit with a speech at Moscow State University expected to lay out Obama's vision for U.S.-Russian relations.
Biden leaves Moscow on March 11 for Moldova.
written by Claire Bigg, with agency reports