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U.S. rejects 'sphere of influence' for Russia |
By Helene Cooper and Nicholas Kulish
Saturday, February 7, 2009
MUNICH: Vice President Joseph Biden of the United States rejected the notion of a Russian sphere of influence Saturday, promising that the new government under President Barack Obama would continue to press NATO to seek "deeper cooperation" with like-minded countries.
Biden, in a much-anticipated speech at an international security conference, also said the Obama administration would continue to pursue a planned missile defense system that has angered the Kremlin, provided the technology works and is not too expensive. The missile defense shield, Biden said, is needed to "counter a growing Iranian capability."
In the Obama administration's first outline before an international audience of how it will conduct U.S. relations with the rest of the world, the vice president signaled a tough line on Iran. "We will be willing to talk to Iran," Biden said, in a departure from the Bush administration.
But Biden quickly tacked back to a refrain common during the last years of the Bush presidency, and spoke of offering Iran's leader a choice: "Continue down your current course and there will be pressure and isolation; abandon the illicit nuclear program and support for terrorism and there will be meaningful incentives."
On Friday, the opening day of the conference, Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Iranian Parliament, had told the audience that Obama's decision to send George Mitchell, his new envoy, to the Middle East to listen and not to dictate was "a positive signal" but also said that, in terms of Iran, "the old carrot and stick cliché" - the very strategy that Biden outlined - "must be discarded."
Biden's speech was the highlight of a high-powered annual security conference that attracted a host of global leaders and diplomats, most of whom seemed primed to hear how the United States and its new leadership viewed the world. They erupted into spontaneous applause when Biden walked onto the stage.
But for all the talk of a new era in relations between the United States and the world, old sores remained, and with no sign of healing soon. For instance, while Biden's wording virtually echoed the stance on missile defense that Obama took during the presidential campaign, it was notable because Biden did not announce a strategic review of the issue, which administration officials had considered as a way to reduce tensions between Washington and Moscow.
Instead, Biden hewed to a line long expressed by the Bush administration and said the Obama administration would pursue it "in consultation with our NATO allies and Russia."
"We will not agree with Russia on everything," Biden said. "For example, the United States will not recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. We will not recognize a sphere of influence. It will remain our view that sovereign states have the right to make their own decisions and choose their own alliances."
Biden said that the United States and Russia can disagree but should still look for ways to "work together where our interests coincide."
Biden's speech came a day after Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Ivanov of Russia told the same group that Moscow would not deploy its own missiles on the Polish border if the United States reviewed its missile defense plan, which Russia says is meant to counter Russian ballistic missiles.
But any chance for a rapprochement between Washington and Russia at this conference all but evaporated, foreign policy experts said, after officials of the Obama administration concluded that Russia had pressed Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet Republic, to close the U.S. military base in that country. The base is crucial to the U.S.-led fight in Afghanistan that Obama has identified as his central national security objective. Obama plans to deploy as many as 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan over the next two years; shaky overland supply routes through Pakistan would make it difficult for the United States to adjust to the loss of the base, in Manas, Kyrgyzstan.
It was at this same Security Conference two years ago when the new tension between the United States and Russia leaped to the fore when Vladimir Putin, then Russia's president and now its prime minister, lashed out against the United States over its use of force.
On Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel struck a conciliatory note. "It is in our interest to incorporate Russia in this new security architecture," Merkel said.
But President Nicolas Sarkozy of France said, "Let's be frank about it, there's more and more distrust between the European Union and Russia."