The Cleaner Goes to Europe

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Vice President Joseph Biden departs today for Warsaw, Poland; the first stop in a series of meetings in Central and Eastern Europe. As part of his trip prep on the flight over in Air Force Two, perhaps the Vice President will set down the briefing books, pop Pulp Fiction into the DVD player, and notice the similarities in the role he plays in Eastern Europe's dramas to the one played in Pulp by Harvey Keitel; the tuxedo-clad "cleaner" who shows up at a murder scene announcing: "I'm Winston Wolfe. I solve problems."

The problem Vice President Biden confronts in his four-day, three-country tour is the fear of abandonment felt to varying degrees by nations who risked much to shake free the Soviet yoke and rejoin a free Europe. There's no crime to clean up, but the threat of organized violence hangs in the air, as memories of the Russia-Georgia conflict rattle nerves about the intentions of a resurgent Russia.

This past summer, those concerns were given voice by Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa and dozens more of the region's human rights activists in their "Open Letter to the Obama Administration: "...There is... nervousness in our capitals. We want to ensure that too narrow an understanding of Western interests does not lead to the wrong concessions to Russia.... The danger is that Russia's creeping intimidation and influence-peddling in the region could over time lead to a de facto neutralization of the region.... We know from our own historical experience the difference between when the United States stood up for its liberal democratic values and when it did not. Our region suffered when the United States succumbed to ‘realism' at Yalta. And it benefited when the United States used its power to fight for principle."

That concern ratcheted up with the September decision to scrap the planned U.S. missile deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic; widely viewed as an American attempt to placate Russian concerns about the system, and perhaps soften Russian intransigence on sharper sanctions against Iran. For many in Eastern Europe, angst over the missile defense reversal had little to do with the technical merits of the proposed system, and everything to do with a tangible commitment of American boots on the ground to man and maintain those systems. In the words of an anonymous Eastern European diplomat: "What else to say. Another disappointment." Former Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek was not nearly so diplomatic, declaring to a reporter: "The Americans are not interested in this territory as they were before. It's bad news for the Czech Republic."

Enter the cleaner - a role Mr. Biden first played in his summer foray into the former Soviet sphere. In July, Vice President Biden visited Ukraine and Georgia, two former Soviet Socialist Republics that Russia very much means to pull back into its "sphere of privileged interests."  That phrase is nowadays sourced to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's 2008 speech, but its politico-military pedigree actually traces back more menacingly to 1939 and the cynical slicing-up of Europe by the Soviets and Nazi Germany.

In Kiev, the Vice President rhapsodized about the beauty of Ukrainian women - and managed also to reaffirm Ukraine's interest in NATO membership and its kinship to the West. Biden brought the same pro-NATO talking points to Tbilisi, even as he resisted Georgian requests for arms sales and delivered a tough-love sermon on the need to respect political freedoms.

This week, the cleaner heads to three capitals in the former Warsaw Pact with a message of reassurance. As Vice President Biden told Polskie Radio upon his arrival today: "Our motto is 'nothing about you, without you'"

Mr. Biden's message is more than merely rhetorical, however, as the U.S. takes steps to assure its allies that America's commitment to the region remains strong. Ahead of Mr. Biden's trip, U.S. sources released plans to build new military bases - total cost: $110 million - in Bulgaria and Romania; the two newest members of the European Union, and former members of the Warsaw Pact. The U.S. also confirmed that Poland will receive Patriot surface-to-air missile systems, combat-ready in 2010. At the same time, Pentagon official Alexander Vershbow - former Ambassador to Russia and to NATO, facts not lost on Russia's rulers - mused in an interview about the prospect of citing an anti-missile radar in Ukraine, a statement that raised Russian ire and drew a quick U.S. semi-retraction, as U.S. defense officials insisted that offering Ukraine "early warning" radars remains a possibility.

For Russians disinclined to see disarray on the U.S. side, the radar episode simply underscores that Washington remains all too interested in Russia's privileged sphere.

How the Vice President's mission will play in Prague, Warsaw and Bucharest will not be evident in the pre-written boilerplate issued after each high-level meeting, but rather in the months ahead, as issues well beyond the region shape U.S.-Russian relations. Case in point: The great game revolving around Iran's nuclear quest - and Russia's support of it - and the leverage Moscow seeks to exercise as the price for cooperation. As the Iranian crisis plays out, Eastern Europe's leaders will look for assurance that they are valued allies in a Europe "whole and free," and not pawns on the geo-political chessboard.

Winston Wolfe's problems were of the blood-and-gore variety. Vice President Biden must hope the problems he's tackling never come to that.

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