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Obama Administration Signals Thaw in Relations with Russia

Vice President Joe Biden gave a hint to the Obama administration's attitude toward relations with Russia in a Feb. 7 foreign policy speech in Munich, Germany.

Many analysts agree that after eight years of the Bush administration, relations between the United States and Russia are not good. Those relations, experts say, have been steadily deteriorating.

But during a speech to an international gathering in Munich earlier this month, Vice President Joe Biden signaled a willingness to end that downward spiral.

"It's time - to paraphrase President Obama - it's time to press the reset button," he said. "And to revisit the many areas where we can and should be working together with Russia."

Marshall Goldman from Harvard University, says Mr. Biden's speech set a new tone for relations between Washington and Moscow.

"When you say 'reset' that means you clear the computer and that opens up all kinds of new opportunities and you're not going to be held back by past commitments which have been controversial," he said. "This provides an opportunity that maybe only a new administration could do because they don't have to be held down by complications that arose under the past government."

One of those complications, experts say, is the Bush administration's plan to put a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe, which is vehemently opposed by Russia.

Joe Biden addressed that issue in his Munich speech.

"We will continue to develop missile defenses to counter a growing Iranian capability, provided the technology is proven and is cost effective," he said. "We will do so in consultation with our NATO allies and with Russia."

Robert Legvold from Columbia University says it's a departure from the Bush administration's view to go ahead with the defense shield whether it's feasible or not.

"The basic position is we're not going forward with this unless it's technologically feasible and unless it's something that we can get agreement with at least the allies," he said. "And in doing so, we also want to consult the Russians. It's also my impression that in the separate conversation that Vice President Biden had with [Russian Deputy Prime Minister] Sergei Ivanov, that there were indications the U.S. would like to, whatever happens on ballistic missile defense, achieve an outcome that is acceptable to Russia and one that Russia buys into."

In his speech, Biden also said Washington and Moscow can cooperate in such areas as Afghanistan, cutting nuclear weapons arsenals and nuclear nonproliferation.

Mr. Biden said Russia and Washington will not agree on everything. But he said the two countries can disagree and still work together where interests coincide - and "they coincide in many places."

Experts say the speech was also important for what it did not address. For example, Robert Legvold says Mr. Biden did not mention speeding up Georgia and Ukraine's accession plans to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization - or NATO.

"[That] both the United States and the Europeans had retreated from as of last December's NATO meeting," he said. "And I think it's very, very unlikely that anybody is going to want to return to a sped-up process as we move toward the 60th anniversary NATO meeting in early April. So I think the issue of both Georgia and Ukraine in NATO is off the table for the time being. In principle it's not off permanently, but I think it's off the table for now."

Senior Russian officials, including Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, reacted positively to the vice president's speech. But in an interview with the Russia Today television program, Ivanov was more cautious.

"From my previous experience - I'm 56 already - I saw a lot of thaws," he said. "I saw a lot of good intentions which ended nowhere. I hope this time it won't be the case."

Analysts say it was important for the Obama administration to early on set out the broad outlines of a Russia policy. Having done that, experts say now is the time to fill in the blanks and build on the positive tone set out in Joe Biden's Munich speech.