The US rejects the idea of any nation claiming a sphere of influence, Vice President Joe Biden told a Washington think tank, arguing that the crisis in Ukraine was about the principles and values of the West and international order.
“We will not recognize any nation having a sphere of influence,” the vice president said during a speech at the Brookings Institution on Wednesday. It remained unclear whether the remark applied to US influence around the globe, or referred only to Russia, China and other countries.
Asked by AP diplomatic correspondent Matt Lee to clarify the remark, State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke did not quite know how.
“What we see when we look around the world are places where we desire to improve our contacts with countries,” Rathke said, acknowledging that other countries might do the same. “What is important is that those relations develop on the basis of mutual interest, mutual respect, without coercion, and to the benefit of the peoples of the countries involved.”
“I don’t really think the description of that as a ‘sphere of influence’ is particularly apt in those kinds of cases,” Rathke added.
Biden described the conflict in Ukraine as crucial to the future of NATO, the EU and the West in general, something that called for leadership “the kind our parents and grandparents’ generation delivered.”
Allowing the Kremlin to establish a “fiefdom” in Ukraine, he said, would only fan the flames of Russian ambition.
Biden blamed any humanitarian issues in Ukraine on Russia, reiterating US support for the government in Kiev. He has traveled to Ukraine three times over the past year, he said, and talks to President Poroshenko and Prime Minister Yatsenyuk about once a week, on average.
According to the vice president, the US has provided $470 million to Kiev in economic assistance, not counting the billions in loan guarantees if Kiev “continues on the path of reforms” they promised to deliver.
The US needs a Ukraine that “cannot be bribed, coerced or intimidated,” Biden said, one that would someday serve as an example to Russians of what Western values and institutions can accomplish.
In the Vice President’s narrative, the US tried to be a friend to Russia and bring it into the “world of responsible nations” through institutions such as the World Trade Organization and the NATO-Russia Partnership. He said that process was going well between 2009 and 2012, during the Medvedev presidency, but blamed President Vladimir Putin for setting Russia on a different course since.
However, Biden also said that all politics was personal, and that the US would continue working with the Russian leadership wherever Moscow’s help could benefit US interests, citing the example of nuclear talks with Iran.
“We’re not looking for regime change, or any fundamental alteration of circumstances inside Russia,” Biden said. “We’re looking for [Putin] to, in our view, act rationally.”
Meanwhile, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg addressed the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, where he accused Russia of “nuclear saber-rattling” he called “unjustified, destabilizing and dangerous.”
“Russia is a global actor that is asserting its military power,” Stoltenberg said. “We regret that Russia is taking this course. Because when might becomes right, the consequences are grave.”
The remarks come just two weeks after Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Russian counterpart in Sochi and urged the leadership in Kiev to “think twice” before re-igniting hostilities, frozen by a ceasefire arranged in February at the Belorussian capital of Minsk.
Forces loyal to the government in Kiev have since resumed artillery attacks on civilians in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, in territories that have refused to recognize their authority since May 2014.
State Department’s Rathke insisted that “overwhelming majority of the ceasefire violations” were committed by “Russian [sic] and separatist forces,” but that he was “not familiar” with reports of civilians killed by Ukrainian shelling.
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