US Vice President Joe Biden arrives in Georgia today, almost a year after a war with Russia that turned the small nation on the far frontier of Europe into the epicenter of the simmering conflict between Moscow and the West.
Biden will hold two days of talks with President Mikhail Saakashvili and opposition leaders to demonstrate US support for Georgia, a loyal ally concerned about Washington’s efforts to court the Kremlin.
The Russia-Georgia war capped years of increasing tensions between the West and Russia, a country key to US and European efforts to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, battle terrorism and secure Europe’s energy supplies.
Biden’s trip comes just a few weeks after President Barack Obama’s summit in Moscow and amid increasing concern among some of Russia’s East European neighbors that warming relations between the US and Russia might leave them out in the cold.
He will arrive from Ukraine, another former Soviet nation looking to strengthen ties to the US and Europe.
Saakashvili and Biden will attend ceremonies tonight, including a banquet where both will exchange toasts, a ritual of hospitality that Georgians have turned into an art form.
On Thursday, Biden will hold formal discussions with Saakashvili, whose government was shaken this spring by mass street demonstrations demanding his resignation. The vice president will also meet with leading members of the opposition.
Political foes blame Saakashvili for the August war’s disastrous results and accuse him of riding roughshod over democratic rights.
Saakashvili has said he tried to defend Georgia from Russian aggression, and he announced a series of political reforms Monday meant to address his critics’ complaints that his administration was restricting rights.
After Georgia used military force to try to seize a breakaway region from Moscow-backed separatists in August, Russia sent tanks and warplanes deep into Georgian territory, crushing the country’s army.
The conflict ended hopes in the West that Russia, after recovering from the economic and social turmoil of the post-Soviet era, would become a docile, democratic member of the club of European nations.
Instead, Russia has tried to reclaim its historic role as an assertive regional power with global ambitions.
Shortly after the Georgian war, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev declared that Moscow has a “zone of privileged interests” among former Soviet and Eastern European satellites.
The US and Europe have rejected sphere-of-influence geopolitics, which give great powers sway over their smaller neighbors. And they show no signs of backing down.
Neither do they seem willing to risk a confrontation with Russia on the issue.
The US has pledged to support NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. But Germany and other European member states are skeptical.