WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's meeting Thursday in Prague with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, where they'll sign a new nuclear arms reduction pact, will highlight a thaw in relations between the former Cold War enemies that's occurred since the U.S. called just over a year ago for the two countries to hit the "reset button."
The new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty is the most visible measure of improving cooperation on an array of fronts, from intelligence sharing to Iran and the war in Afghanistan. Moscow quietly has allowed more than 130 planes carrying U.S. troops to Afghanistan to transit its territory, the first armed Americans ever permitted on Russian soil.
"For many decades we were trying to kill each other, and now they are allowing our troops to go through their country to battle," said a senior Obama administration official, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly.
"We're not interested in a happy or good or positive relationship with Russia," he said. "We are actually interested in a substantive relationship with Russia that advances U.S. national security interests."
Some analysts cautioned that some thorny issues could stall the warming trend, such as the expansion of U.S. missile defenses in Eastern Europe and Moscow's insistence on the primacy of Russian influence over former Soviet republics such as Ukraine and Georgia.
"There are powerful constituencies in Russia that treat the United States with implacable suspicion," said Ariel Cohen of the conservative Heritage Foundation. "They also treat President Obama as a naive neophyte."
Obama will have to balance his outreach to Russia with the concerns of Eastern and Central European NATO allies who remain anxious about their former overlord. While in Prague, Obama will dine with the leaders of 11 of those countries.
The next major test in U.S.-Russian ties comes over the next few weeks, as the United States seeks Russia's support for harsher U.N. sanctions against Iran for refusing to suspend uranium enrichment work that Western powers charge is for a secret nuclear-weapons program.
Medvedev has been indicating that Moscow may back stiffer sanctions, a key issue that he's to discuss with Obama in Prague.
Andrew Kuchins of the center-right Center for Strategic and International Studies said that Moscow had grown more alarmed over the pace of Iran's nuclear program since the revelation in September that Tehran was secretly constructing an underground enrichment facility near the Shiite Muslim holy city of Qom.
"The Russians are just about as frustrated with the Iranians as we are," Kuchins said. "They have just been stiffed by Tehran."
Russia, which has a significant economic stake in Iran and veto power in the U.N. Security Council, had been cool to tougher sanctions. Reports Wednesday said that Lukoil, a large Russian oil company with close ties to the Kremlin, was joining seven other major petroleum firms in shutting off gasoline shipments to Tehran.
Sergei Prikhodko, a foreign policy adviser to Medvedev, said Wednesday that the new START treaty "signals a transition to a higher interaction level between Russia and the United States" on bilateral and global issues beyond nuclear arms control.
"Major progress in the field of disarmament will raise the level of trust and predictability and open a possibility for the solution of various complicated problems through constructive cooperation," Prikhodko said in a statement distributed to U.S. journalists.
The atmosphere is markedly different from the one at the end of the Bush administration, when relations were widely seen as hitting their lowest point since the Cold War ended in 1991.
The relationship began well, with Russia supporting the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and signing a 2002 arms reduction pact known as the Treaty of Moscow. It soured as Russia became an outspoken critic of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Tensions rose over the Bush administration's aggressive promotion of NATO expansion, which saw the admission of the former Soviet Union's Baltic republics, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and Eastern European satellites such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria.
Relations worsened as the Russian government became more authoritarian. The Bush administration decided in 2007 to deploy U.S. missile defenses in the Czech Republic and Poland, and the Kremlin suspended its implementation of a key conventional arms treaty.
Ties hit bottom when Russian troops invaded Georgia, which maintained close ties with the United States, in August 2008 in a dispute over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, whose independence the Kremlin then recognized.
Despite its sympathies for Georgia and its disagreements with Moscow on other issues, such as Russia's poor human rights record, the Obama administration decided against linking them with issues that it considers paramount to the interests of both counties, such as nuclear arms control, nonproliferation, terrorism and climate change.
"We are not going to link issues . . . that we believe should be treated separately," the senior administration official said.
Obama canceled Bush's missile defense plan and began negotiating the new nuclear arms reduction treaty, which restores a system each side uses to monitor the other's nuclear forces that his predecessor had allowed to lapse.
With Obama placing a higher priority on the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. also has sought increased help from Russia. Both share an interest in containing the spread of Islamic extremism, with Russia's fears stemming from the insurgency in its southern Caucasus region.
Russia agreed to allow nonlethal supplies for the U.S.-led international force in Afghanistan to flow across its territory as an alternative to routes through Pakistan that have been attacked by the Taliban. About one-third of those international supplies now go through Russia.
More recently, armed U.S. forces also have been allowed through Russia and the Obama administration has begun working with Moscow to stem drug smuggling from Afghanistan into Russia.
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