White House

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

Russian soldiers outside of Gori, Georgia
Russian soldiers outside of Gori, Georgia Tom Lasseter / MCT

MOSCOW — When President Barack Obama flies into Moscow on Monday for meetings with Kremlin leadership, at the top of his agenda will be reducing the number of strategic nuclear weapons capable of destroying life on Earth. And that might be the easy part.

Obama's trip to Russia is viewed on both sides of the Atlantic as a chance to resuscitate relations between the two nations after they fell to post-Cold War lows during the presidency of George W. Bush.

In order to do so, Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev appear to be taking a more pragmatic tack than did their predecessors: concentrating first on the issues that in the parlance of the diplomatic community are "deliverables," things that can get done, instead of getting stuck on thornier issues.

There is measured hope that a combination of the financial crisis — which humbled Russian rhetoric after both a credit crunch and lower commodity prices hit hard here — and signals from Medvedev, however conflicted, that he's willing to pursue political reform, have created an opening for Obama to "reset" diplomatic ties.

Progress is anticipated on arms control _expected to be a centerpiece of the agenda — as well as on trade, counter-narcotics and support for transporting Western military supplies to the Afghan theatre.

It's a delicate task in an uncertain setting. To begin with, there is a question of whether Obama is dealing with the real leader of the country. The prime minister and former president, Vladimir Putin, is widely regarded as the ruler of Russia and the driving force behind a revival of nationalism and authoritarian rule here that's been funded by oil and gas money.

During the past year, Putin was the most visible and bellicose representative of the Russian invasion of U.S. ally Georgia, and then the dispute that led to a cut-off of Russian gas to U.S. ally Ukraine and much of Europe.

However, because of diplomatic protocol, Obama will spend more time with Medvedev, a friendlier face, than with the prime minister.

American officials have said that they are aware of the complexities of Russia's "ruling tandem." Critics of the Kremlin warn that Putin's deep distrust of the West could short-circuit attempts for substantial change.

In an interview with the Associated Press on Thursday, Obama acknowledged the dilemma. "I think that it's important that even as we move forward with President Medvedev, that Putin understands that the old Cold War approaches to U.S.-Russian relations is outdated, that it's time to move forward in a different direction," Obama said.

"The problem is that Putin has based his campaign on anti-American rhetoric," said Boris Nemtsov, a deputy prime minister in the late 1990s and one of the few national political opposition leaders still in Russia. "Obama believes that democracy is a universal value, Putin believes that it is a universal threat."

Obama and Medvedev have pledged to extend or replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) — a 1991 agreement to reduce the number of long-range nuclear warheads in both countries, which is set to expire in December.

After their April meeting in London, the two leaders set an apparent benchmark by saying they'd go below the levels set by a 2002 pact, known as the Moscow Treaty, which calls for no more than between 1,700 to 2,200 strategic warheads in each country by the end of 2012.

As with much of U.S.-Russia relations, the matter still faces a stumbling block.

The Kremlin is angry about a planned U.S. missile shield in Eastern Europe that was pushed by the Bush administration.

Russian leaders say they fear that the system, which would be based in Poland and the Czech Republic, is not aimed at stopping an Iranian attack, as Washington insists, but rather at weakening Russia's nuclear deterrent - the cornerstone of its military power.

Medvedev greeted Obama's victory at the polls last November by threatening to deploy missiles in Kaliningrad, near Poland, "to neutralize, if necessary, the anti-ballistic missile system in Europe." The timing was inept, and has led some to wonder whether the speech was prepared for a win of the presidency by Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republican candidate.

Obama has said that the shield is under review, amid questions about its funding and whether it would actually work.

One way around the standoff would be to link Russia to a broader anti-missile system, an offer that Washington raised but that Moscow so far has shunned.

The disagreement about the shield taps into the broader problem that Russian officials and analysts say is at the core of troubles with the United States. This is the question of Russia's contested influence over the so-called "near abroad" countries. Russia's war with Georgia last August, for example, resulted in the de facto annexing of two regions in that country.

While the Obama administration has signaled that it's not going to press NATO as aggressively as Bush did to admit Georgia and Ukraine, it's clear that those fault lines remain in place.

During a teleconference last week, a U.S. official dealing with Russian affairs said that Obama is looking for ways to work with the Kremlin, but would not be willing to swap U.S. interests for Russian cooperation.

"We are not in any way, in the name of the reset, abandoning our very close relationships with these two democracies, Ukraine and Georgia," said Michael McFaul, senior director for Russian and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council.

For the Kremlin, there is little compromise on being able to project power in what is referred to here as a "privileged sphere."

From the Russian viewpoint it's an existential matter, said Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of Politika, a pro-Kremlin think tank.

Sergei Markov, a member of Russia's lower house of parliament who's seen as having close links to the Kremlin, agreed. "If you say, as Washington maintains, the Russian sphere of influence is limited by its border, it means that Washington is saying that Russia is not a great power," Markov said.

Beyond the question of Russian power, and U.S. efforts to work with or check it, there are some in Moscow who worry that something else is being overlooked -- freedom.

By focusing on arms control and other security-related matters, the thinking goes, the Obama administration could signal to hardliners in Moscow that America is embracing an approach in which U.S. national interests trump any message about spreading democracy and the rule of law.

Russia is a country where human rights workers are harassed, ethnic minorities are publicly assaulted by gangs and those who pose a threat to the ruling powers have in the past been killed.

"My fear is this agenda, only a hard security agenda, and Obama's dialogue only with the Kremlin, will be used by the traditional party of the Russian political establishment and by the Kremlin as ... an instrument to legitimize the current system," said Lilia Shevtsova, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Obama officials say the president will spend much of his second day in Moscow speaking with civil society leaders, and giving what's billed as a major speech that's expected to at least touch on the question of open governance, a clear indication that democracy is still on the agenda.

Before those meetings on Tuesday, though, Obama will have breakfast with a powerful Russian politician: Vladimir Putin.


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