President Obama met with Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, second from right, at his residence on Tuesday.
Vlad does not appear very happy.
July 8, 2009
Obama Resets Ties to Russia, but Work Remains
By PETER BAKER
MOSCOW — President Obama kicked off a new chapter in Russian-American relations with significant progress on several fronts during a two-day visit to the nation that began Monday. About a year after the relationship ruptured over the war in Georgia, the two sides are now back at the table and doing business.
But while Mr. Obama and President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia declared a reconciliation, they did so partly by agreeing to disagree on important issues and by selectively interpreting the same words in sharply different ways. Moreover, they made promises of cooperation that ultimately might prove easier to translate into words than reality.
A case in point: Mr. Obama and Mr. Medvedev announced an agreement to open a joint early-warning center to share data on missile launchings. But Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris N. Yeltsin announced the same agreement in 1998. Mr. Clinton then announced it again with President Vladimir V. Putin in 2000. Mr. Putin and President George W. Bush recommitted to it as recently as 2007.
And none of them ever actually built the center.
Similarly, Mr. Obama and Mr. Medvedev this week renewed their nations’ mutual commitment to getting rid of 34 tons each of weapons-grade plutonium, another initiative started in the 1990s and never completed.
White House aides agreed that the hard part was ahead, but they argued that the progress eclipsed that of any Russian-American summit meeting in decades. Among other things, the two leaders agreed to slash strategic nuclear arsenals, resume military contacts suspended after the war with Georgia and open an air corridor across Russia for up to 4,500 flights of United States troops and weapons to Afghanistan each year.
“They’re real things. It is not fluff,” said Michael McFaul, the president’s Russia adviser. “I dare you to think of a summit that was so substantive.”
“We didn’t solve everything in two days,” he added. “That would be impossible. But I think we came a long way in terms of developing both a relationship that advances our national interest with the government and also laying out a philosophy about foreign policy.”
Analysts were more cautious, saying that Mr. Obama had opened the way to progress while still confronting profound differences on issues like Iran, missile defense and Georgia. “Obama has achieved about as much as he could, given the short amount of time in power, the enduring conflicts in interests and deep distrust in the relationship,” said Andrew C. Kuchins, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Mark Medish, a Clinton adviser now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said America’s best hope was to tamp down trouble from Russia. “I think President Obama understands the reset is mainly a way to avoid unnecessary or accidental confrontation,” he said, referring to the so-called reset in American-Russian relations. “In a sense, it’s like a mini-détente after a mini-cold war.”
How far Mr. Obama’s initiative goes may depend on the relationship forged with Mr. Medvedev during long hours of talks and multiple meals. The two seemed to develop an easy familiarity by the end of the visit.
“Those two presidents are a different generation,” said Pavel Palazhchenko, a longtime interpreter for Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the former Soviet president who met with Mr. Obama on Tuesday. “Many of the dogs in the old fights are really not their dogs. And they will be willing to take a fresh look at some issues.”
By contrast, Mr. Obama had a more intense encounter with Mr. Putin, now the prime minister but still considered Russia’s paramount leader. Their breakfast ran two hours, and Mr. Putin spent the first half in a virtually uninterrupted monologue about Russia’s view of the world, aides said afterward.
In public, the two praised each other and made no mention of Mr. Obama’s assessment last week that Mr. Putin still had “one foot in the old ways” of the cold war. “With you,” Mr. Putin told Mr. Obama, “we link all our hopes for the furtherance of relations between our two countries.” Mr. Obama talked of “the extraordinary work that you’ve done on behalf of the Russian people.”
But in a later interview with Fox News, Mr. Obama said that “some of his continued grievances with respect to the West are still dated in some of the suspicions that came out of that period.” Mr. Obama added: “I found him to be tough, smart, shrewd, very unsentimental, very pragmatic. And on areas where we disagree, like Georgia, I don’t anticipate a meeting of the minds anytime soon.”
Mr. Obama used his second day here to demonstrate continuing American support for greater freedom in Russia.
He met with opposition leaders, attended a conference on civil society and sent a delegation to a memorial service for Paul Klebnikov, an American journalist gunned down in Moscow five years ago. “After five long years, we urge the Russian authorities to redouble their efforts to bring to justice those responsible,” said William J. Burns, the under secretary of state for political affairs.
The president attended a meeting with business leaders to stress better economic ties and press for more consistent rules for investors. Viktor F. Vekselberg, an oil and metals magnate, said Mr. Obama’s presence “should be a strong, positive signal to all business to re-examine the potential in both countries.”
At the civil society conference, Mr. Obama stressed support for freedom of expression and assembly, the rule of law, and consistent application of justice. But his comments throughout the day were calculated to recognize Russian resentment of American scolding.
“I come before you with some humility,” he said. “I think in the past there’s been a tendency for the United States to lecture rather than to listen. And we obviously still have much work to do with our own democracy in the United States. But nevertheless, I think we share some common values and interest in building a strong, democratic culture in Russia as well as the United States.”
The White House modeled an address by Mr. Obama at the New Economic School in Moscow on President Ronald Reagan’s famous “Ivan and Anya” speech in 1984, which cited fictional Russians to make the point that Washington and Moscow could openly discuss differences while still working together.
Thomas O. Melia, deputy executive director of Freedom House, an American advocacy group, hailed Mr. Obama for offering a more expansive articulation of democratic values and attending the civil society conference even though Mr. Medvedev refused to go.
“It underscores how wide is the values gap between the American and Russian governments,” Mr. Melia said, “which is a reminder of why it will be difficult to improve the relationship in some key ways.”
Michael Schwirtz, Ellen Barry and Andrew E. Kramer contributed reporting.