U.S. Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Kiev on Monday. Thus begins his tour of Ukraine and Georgia, which happen to be the two former Soviet republics Moscow is most concerned about. But despite the U.S. vice president's presence in their territory - and statements by U.S. President Barack Obama during his visit to Moscow earlier this month professing support for the two countries, which are squarely on the fence between East and West - both Kiev and Tbilisi are evincing no shortage of pessimism about their relationships with Washington.
The official American position is - and will always be - that individual countries have a right to determine their own course and form alliances with whomever they choose. Once, that was comforting to Ukraine and Georgia. But when the Russians invaded Georgia in August 2008, snatching away the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia without any meaningful American military response, the classic problem of alliance warfare came to the fore. In short, Washington has the luxury of giving rhetorical support.
This reality is rooted in America's geographic security. Not only is the United States insulated from European and Asian affairs by the world's two largest oceans, it also is allied with the vast majority of European Union states - including the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia - through NATO. The only political entities as close to the U.S. capital as Estonia is to St. Petersburg are American states - a disparity emblematic of Russia's perennial security problem. Those who remember 1962 will remember what a different matter it was when Cuba tried to determine who could do what on its territory and Havana attempted to host Soviet ballistic missiles armed with nuclear weapons.
Russia's determination to re-establish a proprietary sphere of influence in its periphery is rooted in the same geographic imperatives that drove the United States to respond so aggressively to the Cuban missile crisis. That essential reality remains in play: The United States will continue its rhetorical support for Ukraine and Georgia, given the value of confronting Russian expansion - and because it is insulated from the consequences of that support. But American commitment to the two countries - outside of its most important alliance structure, NATO - is limited. Indeed, neither Tbilisi nor Kiev is particularly confident about American security guarantees, outside of actual NATO membership, having witnessed Washington's relative silence while Moscow essentially annexed South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008.
To be fair, the challenges cut both ways. Ukraine's government is so perennially unstable and fractious that even if Washington had larger ambitions for Ukraine, it would have no guarantees for those ambitions because a deal made with one Ukrainian government could quickly be broken by a new Ukrainian government. No matter what comes of Biden's meetings on Tuesday with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko - who are more political rivals than allies - it will not undo this more fundamental reality.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili is both a bit more desperate and a bit more on top of his government (if only comparatively). STRATFOR sources have indicated that Saakashvili believes that Obama in some way threatened Russian President Dmitri Medvedev over Georgia during his recent visit to Moscow. But Saakashvili's estimation of U.S. security guarantees in 2008 was clearly flawed. And even if his perceptions now are accurate, this is exactly the sort of security agreement Tbilisi believed it had received from the Americans before the 2008 war with Russia - so Georgia is not likely to put much stock in any guarantee short of actual NATO membership.
There is no shortage of NATO members ready to block Georgian membership. This fact is rooted not only in politics, but also in the fact that Georgia offers no positive contribution to the overall security of the alliance. Its membership would only drain NATO resources and increase the potential that the alliance could be drawn into a conflict with Russia.
In short, Biden's trip to Ukraine and Georgia appears significant, but the underlying realities have not shifted. And no control of rhetorical power on Biden's part is going to alter them in the next few days.