Politics & Government

Obama offers Russia cooperation, criticizes 'old assumptions'

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a speech at the graduation ceremony at Moscow's New Economic School (Russian Economic School) in Moscow, Russia.
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a speech at the graduation ceremony at Moscow's New Economic School (Russian Economic School) in Moscow, Russia. Alexei Filippov/Itar-Tass/Abaca Press/MCT

MOSCOW — President Barack Obama laid out a vision of greater cooperation between the United States and Russia on Tuesday in a speech that also contained thinly veiled criticism of the Kremlin's authoritarian style of rule.

Washington and Moscow have shared interests that should lead to broader cooperation, Obama said during the last day of his trip to the Russian capital. "America wants a strong, peaceful and prosperous Russia," he said. However, the president added that "unfortunately, there is sometimes a sense that old assumptions must prevail . . . a 19th-century view that we are destined to vie for spheres of influence."

His critique seemed directed at the Russian leadership, which repeatedly has asserted that it has a "privileged" sphere of power in the region that the Soviet Union once dominated. Last week, Obama said that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer who's widely viewed as the man in charge of Russian policy, has "one foot in the old ways of doing business."

Obama delivered his message to the graduating class of the New Economic School, a group he described as being born after "the darkest hours of the Cold War," a demographic that's had much more exposure to the West than its predecessors have.

While he said that it was up to Russia to choose its own course, Obama told the audience he agreed with President Dmitry Medvedev about the need for an effective legal system. Critics of the government often complain about corruption, both official and private, and sometimes use it as a sort of code to express wider discontent with Kremlin policy.

Russia ranked behind Uganda, Kazakhstan and Yemen in the most recent Transparency International survey of corruption.

"The arc of history shows that governments which serve their own people survive and thrive; governments which serve only their own power do not," Obama said in remarks that weren't broadcast widely on state-dominated Russian media.

His message resonated with Andrei Voltornist, a 29-year-old alumnus of the economic school, which is overseen by an international advisory board stacked with American academics.

"Our society is still rather closed, but I think it's just a question of time," Voltornist said, dressed in a crisp dark suit, and standing outside the large trade center where Obama made his address. "The more people travel — even if it's only Turkey in summer — and the more contacts with the outer world they have, the better."

Several Russian analysts didn't comment because they weren't able to watch the speech.

"The main TV channels did not show his speech because they do not focus on news, but those who have Internet or cable TV were able to watch it," said Vladimir Zharikhin, the deputy head of the Institute of CIS Countries, a pro-Kremlin research center.

Zharikhin said he appreciated Obama's stance, even when there were open disagreements. "Instead of saying, 'We won't talk to you until you do this and that,' he says something like 'We do not wholly agree' or 'We could discuss that,' " he said.

Before delivering his address, Obama had breakfast with Putin in the prime minister's heavily guarded suburban home.

In welcoming Obama, Putin acknowledged that U.S.-Russia relations at times have experienced "periods of, shall we say, grayish mood."

During the past year, Russia has invaded Georgia — a U.S. ally — and cut gas supplies to Ukraine, also a U.S. ally.

The meeting, their first, stretched more than half an hour longer than expected.

Afterward, a senior Obama administration official signaled that the president was backing off his earlier assessment of Putin or at least curtailing explicit criticism in public. Asked about Obama's "one foot" comment, the official said that, "I would say that he's very convinced that the prime minister is a man of today and has got his eyes firmly on the future, as well."

That official, and a second who also briefed reporters, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic protocol.

The two officials said that while Obama and Putin saw things differently in areas of long-standing tension, there were several topics on which they found common interest: anti-terrorism measures, arms control, climate change and energy security.

Where they diverged, the leaders presented their positions clearly and avoided heated rhetoric of the sort that's characterized recent tensions with the Kremlin, the U.S. briefer said.

"There was none of this kind of diplomatic speak about Russia versus the United States," the official said.

Putin described his conversation with Obama as "very well-intentioned" and "substantial," according to Russian news wires.

In a Fox News interview, Obama said that, "on areas where we disagree . . . I don't anticipate a meeting of the minds anytime soon."

Later in the afternoon, the president spoke with business and civil society leaders and met members of the political opposition. Medvedev joined him at the first meeting, but not the others.

While the two sides gained ground during the past two days with commitments to nuclear arms reductions and transit for U.S. military supplies to Afghanistan, they were still divided about a planned American missile-defense shield and perceived Western interference in Russian neighbors such as Georgia and Ukraine.

Faced with that reality, Obama used his speech to make forceful points about working with Russia and the world at large, but there were no showcase passages or new announcements.

Among the more poignant moments was when the president pointed to his election as proof that the American system, though imperfect, is able to correct itself.

"If our democracy did not advance . . . then I, as a person of African ancestry, wouldn't be able to address you as an American citizen, much less a president," Obama said. "Because at the time of our founding, I had no rights; people who looked like me. But it is because of that process that I can now stand before you as president of the United States."

Obama's election last year got little coverage in Russia's state-controlled news media.

(McClatchy special correspondent Alla Burakovskaya contributed to this article from Moscow.)


Obama in Moscow: Can tense relationship be 'reset'?

Another foreign challenge for Obama: Georgia-Russia

Flood of Afghan heroin fuels drug plague in Russia

For McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington.

Related stories from McClatchy DC