U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday gave Russia's president a strong commitment to helping his nation join the World Trade Organization, a sign his two-day trip is focused more on economic ties than pressing the Kremlin hard on touchy issues like human rights.
Biden, who two years ago introduced the concept of "the reset button" after years of tension under George W. Bush's presidency, told President Dmitry Medvedev that WTO accession was "the most important item on our agenda," in a meeting at the presidential residence in Gorky, a Moscow suburb.
Earlier in the day, Biden used an appearance at a management school to urge Russia to improve its legal system and anti-corruption efforts. But such issues were absent from talks with Medvedev, and the tenor of the meeting indicated this visit is really about business.
The Obama administration regards integrating Russia into the world economy as key to its development and stability, and that has moved concerns about Russian rule of law and democratic backsliding to a lower priority.
Even his call for reform at the Skolkovo management school was cast in economic terms.
"Investors are looking for assurances that the legal system treats them fairly and acts on their concerns swiftly," Biden told a meeting of top Russian and American businessmen at the school, which Russia sees as the core of an ambitious innovation center that officials hope will be Russia's equivalent of Silicon Valley.
Some Russian newspapers have theorized that Biden's trip could be seen as support for Medvedev running for a second term next year. Medvedev is seen as the weaker figure of Russia's ruling tandem, dominated by the more hardline Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and it is as yet uncertain whether Medvedev will seek a second term or cede his candidacy to Putin, who was president in 2000-2008.
The White House says it is not getting involved in Russia's internal politics, but Biden on Wednesday appeared to make efforts to boost Medvedev's image and esteem.
"For my entire career, when I sat with a Russian leader, I was sitting with one of the most powerful men in the world, and that's how we still think of you — I mean that sincerely," he said.
Medvedev in turn thanked Biden for support of Russia's WTO bid, saying "I hope this process will be completed this year with the active support of the United States."
On Thursday, Biden is to meet with representatives of Russia's beleaguered opposition and civil-society groups, but the issues of democracy and human rights that often have dominated Washington-Moscow relations are currently clearly playing a secondary role.
Russia, although buoyed these days by high world oil prices, remains largely a natural resources economy with an underdeveloped manufacturing sector.
That was tacitly underlined at Skolkovo when Biden witnessed the signing of a deal for national flagship airline Aeroflot to purchase six Boeing 777 airliners — Russia was once a major airliner manufacturer itself, but now buys from the West.
In Wednesday's talks, Medvedev also pushed for the repeal of Jackson-Vanik Amendment, a 1974 U.S. trade law stipulation under which Washington can deny Russia most-favored-nation trade status. The amendment was introduced to pressure the Soviet Union to allow Jews to emigrate; the United States has waived it application since 1994, but Russia bristles that it is still on the books.
Biden on Thursday also meets with Putin and is to cap the trip with an address at Moscow State University that is expected to lay out the White House's vision for U.S.-Russian relations in the last half of Obama's term.
The address and the results of his meetings with Russia's leadership duo will be closely parsed at home, where Obama's policies run head-on into newly confident congressional Republicans who are frequently suspicious of Russia. The signal achievement of Obama's Russia policy to date, the New START arms-control treaty, was ratified by the U.S. Senate only after extensive efforts to bring hesitant Republicans on board.