WASHINGTON -- Vice President Joe Biden says the United States should pursue cooperation with Russia on areas of mutual interests as long as it is not "asked to back off matters of principles" crucial to the "security and well-being" of Washington and its allies.
Describing Russian President Vladimir Putin as "practical at his core," Biden said on May 27 in Washington that it was "overwhelmingly in our interest to continue to cooperate" with the Kremlin on issues like counterterrorism and a deal to restrict Iran's nuclear capabilities.
"[Putin] will push as far as he can, in my view, until he reaches a resistance that in fact says there's a big price to pay," Biden said. "And he may then make a mistake and continue."
"But I think if you look at his behavior over his career, he's a practical guy," he added.
Biden made the comments in a Q&A session following a prepared speech at the Brookings Institution think tank in which he criticized Putin over Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and involvement in the conflict in the country's east.
He said that the "Russian aggression" had "literally transformed the landscape of European security."
"What's happening in Ukraine is about the rights of nations on the frontier of Europe to choose their own futures," Biden said. "It's about the future of NATO, our collective self-defense, and our unity, our strength, our ability to deter aggression together."
Fighting between pro-government forces and Moscow-backed separatists has killed more than 6,100 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014.
Kyiv, NATO, and Western governments accuse Russia of backing the pro-Moscow rebels with weapons, personnel, and training in an effort to undermine Ukraine's pro-Western government.
The Kremlin denies the charge, claiming Russia's military is not fighting in the conflict despite mounting evidence to the contrary.
Over the past year, relations between Moscow and the West have dropped to their lowest point since the Cold War.
The Kremlin has portrayed visits to Russia this month by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland as indications bilateral ties are improving.
Biden's speech offered little new in terms of Washington's position on the Ukraine conflict, though he reiterated Washington's view that the United States and its NATO and EU allies must be vigilant in confronting what he called Russia's "hybrid warfare."
He said Moscow was effectively deploying propaganda and sowing discord among EU member states by backing right-wing and left-wing movements to "create cracks" in European politics.
Biden called on Western countries to continue to back political and economic reforms, as well as anticorruption efforts in Ukraine, saying that Kyiv's success could ultimately serve as a catalyst for similar change in Russia.
"The conflict over Ukraine, I think, is a test for the West, a test for the EU, a test for NATO, a test for us," he said.
"President Putin is wagering that he has greater staying power than all of the parties I just mentioned have," Biden added. "In Ukraine, he's betting that he can outlast the current reformist, pro-European government and undermine it economically."
Biden spoke a day after U.S. President Barack Obama criticized Russia's "increasingly aggressive" stance on Ukraine.
After meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at the White House on May 26, Obama urged Russia to "stop supporting separatists and to withdraw all its forces from eastern Ukraine," which continues to be embroiled in sporadic fighting despite a February cease-fire agreement signed in Minsk.
NATO Chief: Russian Actions 'Deeply Troubling'
In a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington on May 27, Stoltenberg said the military alliance will "firmly uphold sovereignty and territorial integrity of all European countries."
Citing Russia's actions in Ukraine and elsewhere, Stoltenberg said Moscow "is asserting its military power, stirring up aggressive nationalism, claiming the right to impose its will on its neighbors and grabbing land."
He added that NATO would work to ensure its neighbors, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, remain stable and independent.
"These nations are not buffer zones, they are independent sovereign states," he said. "They have the right to choose their own paths and we will help them on that path."
Stoltenberg also said Russia's provocative rhetoric on nuclear weapons and its dramatic expansion of flights by long-range bombers were "deeply troubling."
"Russia's nuclear saber-rattling is unjustified, destabilizing, and dangerous," he said.
In Kyiv, a top NATO commander warned on May 27 that "continual attacks" against Ukraine were impeding Kyiv's efforts to modernize its army enough to one day join the Western military alliance.
NATO's political affairs and security chief, Thrasyvoulos Terry Stamatopoulos, told a defense meeting in Kyiv, "We are well aware of the formidable challenges that Ukraine is facing."
"It's not easy to launch wide-ranging reforms while managing a major conflict and deterring continual attacks against your territorial integrity," he said.