Obama, Medvedev hail 'fresh start' in U.S.-Russia relations

McClatchy NewspapersApril 1, 2009 

LONDON — President Barack Obama will travel to Moscow in July, part of what he and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, are calling a "fresh start" in strained relations between the nuclear powers.

"Over the last several years the relationship between our two countries has been allowed to drift," Obama said after meeting with Medvedev for the first time. "And what I believe we've begun today is a very constructive dialogue that will allow us to work on issues of mutual interest."

He joked that he'd agreed to visit Moscow in July, "which we both agreed was a better time than January to visit."

Medvedev laughed and suggested the warmer weather would better reflect the tone of their meeting.

The decision to meet again in Moscow signaled a new step in the often-complicated relationship between the countries.

During their session at the U.S. ambassador's residence, the two leaders agreed to negotiate a new treaty reducing their nuclear arsenals, to try to persuade Iran not to develop its own nuclear weapons and to cooperate on other issues such as the threat from al Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

They discussed but didn't agree on several other issues, notably the Russian invasion of Georgia, Russian construction of a nuclear facility in Iran and the U.S. pledge to deploy a missile defense system in Eastern Europe.

"My hope is that given the constructive conversations that we've had today, the joint statements that we will be issuing both on reductions of nuclear arsenals as well as a range of other areas of interest, that what we're seeing today is the beginning of new progress in the U.S.-Russian relations," Obama said.

"I can only agree that the relations between our countries have been adrift over the past years," Medvedev added. "As President Obama has said, they were drifting, and drifting in some wrong directions. They were degrading, to some extent."

In a statement, the two pledged to restore the relationship.

"We, the leaders of Russia and the United States, are ready to move beyond Cold War mentalities and chart a fresh start in relations between our two countries," they said.

Their most concrete agreement was to start negotiating a new treaty to reduce their arsenals of nuclear weapons. It would replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expires in December and long ago succeeded in reducing the arms stockpiles.

A new agreement could further cut the arsenals, which now are limited to 1,700 to 2,200 warheads each. A key goal will be making sure the pact maintains START I's inspection and monitoring system.

The new treaty could include an agreement on a mutual defense against missiles, which could open the door to the United States dropping a pledged missile-defense system in Eastern Europe. The United States maintains it's intended to defend Europe against a missile from Iran, but Russia has seen it as hostile.

White House aides said the two men got along well, despite continuing disagreements on some issues.

"They had real disagreements about Georgia; particularly, Abkhazia and South Ossetia will never be recognized by the United States. The president said that very forcefully. The president also made clear the idea of a 'sphere of influence' is an idea whose time is long past its due, not a 21st-century idea," said a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Still, the official said, "They did have a good rapport. . . . But I'd also say that it's fair to say that that rapport was also matched by candor and frankness on areas of disagreement."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also was encouraged.

"The new atmosphere of mutual trust is an atmosphere which does not create the illusion of good relations because they develop well on a personal level, but which ensure taking into account mutual interests and readiness to listen to each other," he said. "We missed this much in the past years."

Obama also met Wednesday with Chinese President Hu Jintao, and accepted his invitation to visit China this year. They assigned their top finance and diplomatic ministers to a panel aimed at forging better cooperation. It will meet annually in alternating capitals.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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