WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits five countries once firmly in the Soviet Union’s grip this weekend in part to try to allay fears that better U.S.-Russian relations may come at their expense.
Clinton left on Thursday for Ukraine, Poland, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, making her first trip as the top U.S. diplomat to the countries, which all labored under Soviet domination for decades.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s effort to “reset” relations with Russia has left lingering doubts in the region -- notably in Georgia -- that Washington may neglect their interests in the service of improved ties with Moscow.
U.S. officials deny this, arguing that better U.S.-Russian relations are good for Russia’s neighbors and that countries should not have to choose between one or the other.
The Cold War came back with a vengeance this week when U.S. officials arrested 10 alleged Russian spies -- an eleventh was picked up in Cyprus -- but the United States and Russia said rolling up the alleged spy ring would not hurt their ties.
Clinton’s trip -- over the July Fourth U.S. Independence Day holiday weekend -- may help counter regional concerns about the U.S.-Russian thaw, U.S. analysts and officials said.
“(She is) trying to roll back some of the damage that is perceived to have been done by the reset -- the idea that the United States has essentially abandoned its post-Soviet allies,” said Matthew Rojansky, deputy director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Russia and Eurasia Program.
“Showing up there on the Fourth of July is not bad symbolism,” he added, stressing he did not believe the Obama administration was giving short shrift to Russia’s neighbors.
NO ‘ZERO-SUM’ GAME
“We want to get beyond the notion that European diplomacy and security is a zero-sum game and that countries in Central Europe need to choose whether they’re going to be pro-Russian or pro-American,” Philip Gordon, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, told reporters this week.
“The better relationship with Russia does not come at the expense of our relationship with sovereign, independent countries that are near Russia,” he said. “This is going to be an opportunity ... to reiterate and demonstrate that.”
Clinton begins her trip in Kiev, where on Friday she will meet new Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, who took office on February 25 and quickly fulfilled many pre-election predictions that he would tilt Ukraine back toward its old Soviet master.
Under Yanukovich, Ukraine has approved allowing the Russian Black Sea Fleet to maintain its base in Crimea until 2042 and has abandoned the aim of joining NATO, a goal championed by his pro-Western predecessor Viktor Yushchenko.
Yanukovich has said he plans to steer Ukraine along a middle path between Russia and Europe, improving ties with Moscow while bringing his nation into the European mainstream.
“One of the things that I hope the secretary does when she is in Kiev is say, ‘look, from the outside it looks like you have leaned rather dramatically toward Russia,’” said Steven Pifer, an analyst at the Brookings Institution think tank.
“‘If in fact you are interested in a more balanced relationship, you might want to pay some more attention to your relations with the United States and with Europe,’” Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, added.
Clinton stops in Krakow, Poland, on Saturday for a gathering of the Community of Democracies, a group that promotes democratic norms, and then visits Azerbaijan and Armenia, which have long sparred over Azerbaijan’s breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region.
VIOLENCE NEAR NAGORNO-KARABAKH
On June 18, four ethnic Armenian troops and an Azeri soldier died in an exchange of fire near Nagorno-Karabakh, a small mountainous region under the control of ethnic Armenians who fought a six-year separatist war with support from Armenia.
“Nobody can take stability for granted when you have an armed standoff,” Gordon, the U.S. diplomat, said, adding Clinton would try to promote a resolution to the conflict.
She ends the trip on Monday in Georgia for meetings with President Mikheil Saakashvili, who enjoyed warm relations with the Bush administration that seem to have cooled under Obama.
In a five-day war in August 2008, Russia crushed a Georgian assault on the breakaway region of South Ossetia launched after days of clashes between Georgian and rebel forces and years of growing tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi.
Russia’s war against Georgia caused the worst rift with the West since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. It also led some U.S. officials to question Saakashvili’s judgment and the wisdom of his warm embrace by the Bush administration.
“Georgia had an exaggerated role in U.S. policy under the previous administration,” said Thomas de Waal, Caucasus expert at the Carnegie Endowment. “It is, after all, a small country that’s not, at the end of the day, a vital U.S. interest so I think there had to be a recalibration at some point.”
Editing by Sandra Maler and Vicki Allen
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