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Rep. Wexler on Biden Ukraine-Georgia Trip, US-Russia Relations

In an interview with the Voice of America Ukrainian Service Congressman Robert Wexler (D-FL) summed up Vice President Joseph Biden’s recent trip to Ukraine and Georgia, and commented on the complexities of US-Russia relations. The interview was conducted by Myroslava Gongadze on July 23, 2009, following a hearing by the House subcommittee on Europe, chaired by Congressman Wexler. Below please view excerpts of the interview as they aired on the Ukrainian Service's daily Chas-Time news show to Ukraine. Further below is a transcript of the full interview.

interview as aired on Chas-Time

On the nature and purpose of Vice President Biden’s trip

“[They are] both important – symbolism, and also the substantive nature of the vice president’s message. It’s very important that Vice President Biden’s trip came right after the President’s visit to Moscow. And the vice president reiterated that the American commitment to Ukraine, to Georgia is continuing in the strongest of ways. What he also said was – that not only is our expectation the same in terms of the cooperative nature in which the United States will work with Ukraine, will work with Georgia – that our support will be as strong as ever in terms of integration of Ukraine and Georgia into Euro-Atlantic institutions. That all continues. But what I also think is important and sometimes maybe not easy to hear – that it’s not just a one-way street; it’s not just America supporting Ukraine, it’s not just America supporting Georgia – it’s also the responsibilities of the governments in Ukraine and Georgia, as well as the [people] of Ukraine and Georgia to continue the extraordinary events of recent past. You can’t have an extraordinary revolution of democracy and then step back and lessen the sense of urgency. So, I think what the vice president has said and what our policies will be consistent with is ‘yes, we’re there for you, we will provide all the assistance humanly possible,’ but ultimately this is not about the United States; this is about Ukraine, this is about Georgia, and it’s about self-determination and about where these nations wish to place themselves in the international arena, and we are confident, as we always are, that as people learn and grow more – economically, politically, human rights-wise, freedom-wise – that their march west-ward will continue. Not because of anything other than that they want to better their lives, and they want better education for their children and health care, and security and defense, and all the things that all people in the world want.

On the US hoping to “reset” relations with Russia

I think there are several tangible results that will benefit the United States, will benefit Russia, and, equally important, will benefit Ukraine, Georgia, Eastern European, essentially European countries. For instance, to the degree that the United States and Russia can make substantial progress on negotiating yet further reductions in nucleat arsenals, then this is a very positive development. To the degree that the United States can persuade Russia to work more collaboratively in terms of energy issues – that’s incredibly important for Ukraine, for Georgia, for European nations. To the degree that we can work more collaboratively with respect to Russia in term of thwarting Iran’s nuclear weapons program, then that is of great benefit to the entire region. And the list is actually fairly long. It’s not just energy issues, it’s not just Iran, but to the degree that Russia might act more responsibly in the Middle East, generally, and not sell very advanced weapons systems to Iran or to Syria, may in fact enhance the opportunity for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and broader Israeli-Arab negotiations. To the degree that we can work out with Russia – I don’t know whether we can – but to the degree that we can work more collaboratively with Russia in terms of an anti-missile defense program based in the Czech Republic and Poland, and to the degree that we can prevent President Medvedev or whoever else or Prime Minister Putin going to the Polish border and saying ‘we are going to do this or do that,’ – to the degree that we can avoid these issues, the whole region benefits. So, I thing the effort to engage Russia from a more engaging perspective and not from a combative perspective is a good place to start. There is no guarantee that it will work, but it’s clearly, I think, in everyone’s interest for us to make an earnest effort, and it’s in the Russians’ interest, too. That’s why the likelihood of some degree of success, I think, is great.

On US response to Russia’s aggressive policies in the region

The worst policy would be to ignore the Russian aggressive tendency of late. [The best would be] to engage it and find some commonality in terms of our mutual interests. I think everyone in Washington understands the sensitivity. We understand that when the United States engages Russia, those that are on the periphery of Russian borders say ‘oh, does this mean the Unites States has less of a commitment to Ukraine or to Georgia?’ No, just the opposite. I think our commitment is as great, if not greater than ever before, but we are implementing that commitment in a smarter fashion or at least a fashion that takes more into consideration the Russian policy. So, I think both the president, but in particular Vice President Biden have done, is to say, by his trip to the region, this is not a zero-sum game – which is what President Obama said in Russia. And just because we may hopefully improve relations with Russia, that does not mean Ukraine loses. Vice versa. Just because America and Ukraine grow closer or just because Ukraine grows closer to Euro-Atlantic institutions does not mean Russia loses. Now, it’s an evolution of thought that is required here and that’s of what President Obama is trying to persuade the region – it’s not going to happen overnight, we understand that there are sensitivities, but this is the direction in which, I think, all the parties would want to move forward.

On Russian verbal threats vis-a-vis Ukraine, Georgia

I think we should take those threats seriously. Whenever there are comments made by leaders in Russia, they need to be analyzed and, certainly, understood in a degree of seriousness. But we don’t need to change course, we don’t need to change our policy as a result of those statements. But I think this highlights the need to better engage with the Russians. The worst thing we could probably do is act as if we were isolated from the impact of the Russian policies or statements. We are not, and those of us who are privileged to be Americans, we’re not telling anybody in Ukraine anything they don’t know far better than we do. When Russia gets upset and they shut off energy supplies, it does not make my house cold, it makes [houses in Ukraine] cold. So, to the degree, again, that we can relax these tensions by these policies of engagement, I think we get to a better position where an honest discussion can be had. No one in Washington is under an illusion that, at the end of this discussion or engagement, America and Russia are going to agree on every issue – furthest thing from it – but we should pursue those issues where there is a mutual commonality in terms of our interests, and those where there aren’t – try to minimize the confrontation and minimize the damage on both sides. And if we approach it from that perspective, I think it can be positive. I am no expert on how Russians think, but I think they had a certain way of engaging – or not engaging – with the Bush administration, and they are now trying to calculate, well this new guy Obama – that’s a whole different program that he’s pushing – how do we manipulate our policies to deal with this new phenomenon. I don’t think they’ve fully figured that our yet. And I think when they do – and hopefully they will – the result will be fairly positive.

On past spoiled “honeymoons” in US-Russia relations

[The Bush-Putin] honeymoon was based on the romantic vision of what the United States and Russia might be able to accomplish. Well, it isn’t about some romantic engagement. This is about hard-nosed national interests. And we have some different interests, but we also have some common interests. I’m not hoping that President Obama is going to look into anybody’s eyes or have some extraordinary friendship with Mr. Medvedev or Mr. Putin. As far as I know President Obama has plenty of friends. He does not need new friends. He needs an honest engagement that is responsible in its results as opposed to having two massively important and powerful nations running in a confrontational fashion, where the risks just grow to great – not just for the United States and Russia, but for Ukraine and for the region.

On current challenges to US-Ukrainian strategic partnership

|I think the main challenges are not necessarily between the United States and Ukraine. I think the main challenge, respectfully, is how Ukrainians are going to deal with each other. How are relatively like-minded, reform-minded Ukrainian leaders are going to work collaboratively with one another so as to enhance Ukraine’s economic conditions for its people, how to deal with security issues, how to put forth a unified position relative your relationship with Russia. Ukraine needs to determine that for herself. These are the difficulties of living in a democracy, and none of it is easy. Certainly, America went through some very tumultuous periods in its history. Ukraine is but a “baby” in this context and I say this in a very positive light. [It does not] have 200 years of history of democracy. So, while [Ukraine] is still experimenting, while [it is] still evolving, what the United States needs to do is to assist those democratic forces in Ukraine to move forward without picking a side, one way or the other, or picking a personality. That is not our role. We need to assist the Ukrainian people’s desire to improve their lot – whether it be economic or freedom or political or strategic – and to be a reliable friend, and yes, Ukraine has been a reliable ally in the view of the United States, and we have been a reliable ally of Ukraine, but Ukraine has to develop its own policies from within first.

On US continued support of EU and NATO expansion

The United States, of course, is not a part of the European Union, but we can, of course, play a role – I hope a positive one – in encouraging Europe to offer to eligible countries the opportunity of further engagement of enhancing the trade relationships, the economic relationships should the Ukrainian people continue to wish to do that through their leaders as well as Europe wanting it to happen. I terms of NATO – I am committed, the president is committed, the vice president and the whole administration is committed to Ukraine – again, so long as it wishes – to be incorporated into these transatlantic strategic institutions. Again, that’s why it is so important for the United States and Russia to talk about these issues so that it does not become a zero-sum game. And to create tension needlessly, unnecessarily, can’t be the goal. So, that’s what the president is trying to work through. All of which still depends on, though, Ukraine taking care of its own business. And that is a part and parcel of what needs to happen.

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