International Security Conference to be held in Munich - the situation in the South Caucasus to be discussed

Other News Materials 6 February 2009 04:00 (UTC +04:00)
International Security Conference to be held in Munich - the situation in the South Caucasus to be discussed

The Obama administration is facing its first big international test this weekend as Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. heads to a conference in Europe in the face of a confrontational stance from an old cold war adversary, the washingtontimes reported.

Administration officials have concluded that Russia pressed Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic, to close the American base in that country, which they interpret as a shot across the bow. The base is crucial to the American-led fight in Afghanistan that Mr. Obama has identified as his central national security objective. Mr. 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 Mr. Biden who warned publicly in October that Mr. Obama's mettle could be tested early in his administration by some kind of an international crisis. Now, a speech that Mr. Biden is scheduled to deliver Saturday before leaders and defense officials from Europe and Asia will be watched closely to determine what tack America's fledgling leadership will take regarding Russia.

Will Mr. Biden follow the course of the Bush administration, which sounded conciliatory public notes about the need for cooperation with Russia even as it pursued a series of global policies - NATO enlargement, missile defense - that the Kremlin viewed as infringing on its sphere of influence? Or will Mr. Biden seek to reassure Russia that the Obama administration will ease up on western forays into the former Soviet sphere? For instance, he could announce a strategic review of missile defense, which could take the issue off the table for months.

Administration officials have made only general forecasts. "Stay tuned," a senior administration official said. "It will be dramatic." He said that Mr. Biden would try to outline "our approach to foreign policy, and the principles which we'll be following."

In the past, Mr. Biden has slammed President Bush's Russia policy. "Whatever our game plan has been - and I'm not convinced we've had one - it clearly isn't working," he said in 2007 before a Senate committee, in the midst of some Russian-American wrangling. But now, with the job of outlining the new game plan, Mr. Biden and the Obama administration have to decide how firm they want to be, and at what cost.

"They've got to make a strategic decision on what is more important, their Russia policy or their Afghan policy," said George Friedman, chief executive of Stratfor, a geopolitical risk analysis company.

The new administration is also counting on Russia's help with Iran. Obama administration officials say that they want Russia, Europe and China to look into strengthening sanctions against Iran, as part of an approach that would offer Iranian officials direct talks with the United States but also threaten tougher sanctions if Iran does not suspend its uranium enrichment program. The West believes Iran's nuclear program is aimed at producing a nuclear weapon, a charge Tehran denies.

Already, administration officials say that the Russian prime minister, Vladimir V. Putin, has indicated to them that he is opposed to stronger sanctions against Iran. Foreign policy experts say that could make for difficult negotiations ahead.

There are few in the administration who do not put the blame for the loss of the Kyrgyz base squarely at Russia's door. "It's clearly an attempt to turn the screw," one senior administration official said. "Whatever we do, I can promise you it will be well thought-out."

Russia's defense minister, Sergei Ivanov, is going to be in Munich; it remained unclear on Thursday whether Mr. Biden would meet with him. Aides were still working on Mr. Biden's scheduled speech on Thursday.

The security conference, at the swank Bayerischer Hof Hotel, boasts a high-powered, international guest list: President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France are all expected to attend. Also scheduled to be on hand, along with more than 5,000 expected protesters, are two Iranian officials: Foreign Minister Manouchechr Mottaki and the Parliament speaker, Ali Larijani.

Russian-American relations have dominated the conference in past year. In 2007, Mr. Putin, then Russia's president, lashed out against the Bush administration, accusing the United States of provoking a nuclear arms race in other countries which were seeking to protect themselves from an "almost uncontained use of military force" by the United States.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates responded that "one cold war is enough."

Mr. Biden will be joined in Munich by Gen. James Jones, the national security adviser; Richard Holbrooke, the special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan; James Steinberg, the deputy secretary of state, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, who as head of the United States Central Command oversees all American forces in the Middle East and South Asia.

With Europe fearful of getting caught in a deteriorating situation between the United States and Russia, the Obama administration must look to strike a firm tone without alarming its NATO allies, foreign policy experts said. But at the same time, the administration must seek to allay the fears of Eastern European countries who want closer ties to the West and who are worried about any message that might imply that the United States might cede them back to Russia's sphere of influence.

It is a tough balancing act, especially given that the administration is less than a month old, and neither Mr. Obama or Mr. Biden have met with Russia's leaders yet in their new roles. Mr. Biden, Russia experts say, will have his work cut out for him.

"Whatever you say in public, and whatever calm and statesmanlike tone you use to explain what you're doing with the Europeans, you have to convey to the Russians that this kind of action is going to make it hard for the relationship to get off the ground," said Stephen Sestanovich, a Russia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Unfortunately for Obama and Biden, they have do this without knowing the guys across the table particularly well."

But, Mr. Sestanovich recalled Mr. Biden's remark last fall about how the new administration should anticipate a test. "Maybe," he said, "This is Biden's moment."