"Speaking at Ukraine House in downtown Kyiv on Wednesday, U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden declared, 'As we reset the relationship with Russia, we affirm our commitment to an independent Ukraine.' He then added: 'We recognize no sphere of influence, or no ability of any other nation to veto the choices an independent nation makes as to with whom and under what conditions they will associate.'"
At the conclusion of his speech, Biden departed for Georgia, which weathered a Russian invasion last August. At a dinner hosted by President Mikheil Saakashvili, Biden said he hoped to send "an unequivocal, clear message to all who will listen and some who don't want to listen, that America stands with you and will continue to stand."
Biden voices an important message, but for the White House's stance to be credible, the Obama administration must convince not only Ukraine and Georgia, but also central and eastern Europe, as well as Russia, that Washington is serious about its commitment to protect democracy, freedom, and liberty.
Here, President Barack Obama has his work cut out. Regional states are nervous about the Obama administration's diplomatic outreach to Russia. Meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on March 6, 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a desire to "reset" relations, raising concern throughout the region about what - or who - Washington might sacrifice in order to placate Moscow. Biden indirectly addressed these fears in Kyiv, declaring, "We also do not believe in zero-sum thinking. We do not believe that a partnership with one nation must come at the expense of another."
While the Obama administration may embrace such flexibility, it should not assume that the Russian leadership does. Indeed, the Kremlin appears to be thumbing its nose at Obama. At a July 6 press conference with President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow, Obama declared, "Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity must be respected." The next week, Medvedev made a surprise visit to South Ossetia, one of the two breakaway Georgian provinces occupied by Russian forces and recognized by Moscow as independent countries. The European Union quickly condemned Medvedev's provocation. The White House stayed silent.
Washington's response to allegations of vote-rigging in Moldova's April parliamentary elections, and the Communist government's subsequent repression of those protesting in their wake, was even more feeble. Few Russian neighbors-even Russia's own allies-truly trust Moscow. For them, a resurgent Russia is not a theoretical threat, but one they must live with every day.
It is a paradox of Washington that the American officials and diplomats who consider themselves to be foreign-policy realists are often among the most idealistic analysts, projecting their own good faith onto adversaries. Such irony is not lost on many European officials. On July 16, almost two dozen central and eastern European intellectuals and veteran policymakers -- including such luminaries as Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, and Valdas Adamkus, all intellectual leaders in the fight against communism and former presidents, respectively, of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Lithuania -- published an open letter to Obama in the Polish newspaper "Gazeta Wyborcza."
"Storm clouds are starting to gather on the foreign policy horizon," they wrote. Referring to Russia's invasion of Georgia, they continued, "Many countries were deeply disturbed to see the Atlantic alliance stand by as Russia violated the core principles of the Helsinki Final Act, the Charter of Paris, and the territorial integrity of a country that was a member of NATO's Partnership for Peace.all in the name of defending a sphere of influence on its borders."
So what should the United States do? Diplomacy cannot succeed in isolation. It must be coupled with economic, informational, and military strategies. Alliances are not only rhetorical, but also involve protracted investment over time. They should not be subject to partisan politics. Within Washington, the Cold War victory over the Soviet Union was a bipartisan effort. Both Democrats and Republicans joined together to pass bills tying relations with Moscow to human rights and diplomatic benchmarks. Democratic and Republican administrations both understood that freedom depended on the continuity of military investment, first in NATO and then in the states liberated from Soviet domination. It is in these countries that confidence now waivers.
"Although we are full members, people question whether NATO would be willing and able to come to our defense," Walesa, Havel, Adamkus and their co-signatories wrote.
"The United States cannot afford to take central and eastern Europe for granted. Russia's invasion of Georgia continues to reverberate, and the July 29 parliamentary elections in Moldova are a looming test to gauge whether the U.S. commitment to liberty and democracy truly applies to all of Europe. Too often, in the United States, history is a decade, and anything beyond is forgotten. We must recognize that memories are deeper in Europe for a reason."