Obama aims to ‘reset’ relations with Russia

Author: By Michael Stott, Reuters

A US official told Reuters that negotiators from both sides had agreed the
text of an outline deal on cutting Russian and US nuclear arsenals to put to
the two presidents.

“There is text for them to review”, the official said, speaking anonymously.
The agreement would only become final once the two leaders had looked it
over and announced it, he added.

During two days of talks, officials say Obama will win the Kremlin’s consent
to ship weapons to NATO forces in Afghanistan across Russian territory and
create a joint government commission between Washington and Moscow to
improve relations.

Business leaders travelling with Obama want to use the visit to boost trade
and investment. Russian trade with the United States was just $36 billion in
2008, the same amount as with Poland, and investment has lagged that of
European competitors.

“We hope that President Medvedev will be able to follow through on his
continuous campaign to improve the rule of law,” Andrew Somers, president of
the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia, told Reuters in an interview.

“I think this is a single biggest inhibitor to investment by US companies,
their concern about the rule of law.”

Obama will also listen to the country’s embattled democratic opposition, meet
former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and make a major speech to Russian
students.

But he faces a harder task in trying to achieve his aim of a “reset” in
relations between Washington and Moscow.

The unseasonally cold, rainy, grey skies that awaited Obama and his family in
Moscow seemed an appropriate metaphor for the state of relations between the
two former Cold War superpowers.

Ties hit their worst level since the 1990s last year after Russia sent troops
into neighbouring Georgia, a US ally, triggering fierce condemnation from
Washington.

Medvedev has said he is “moderately optimistic” about Obama’s visit but the
two sides are still deeply divided over US plans to set up an anti-missile
system in central Europe, something Russia says threatens its security.

This, as well as Russian resentment at NATO expansion into the former Soviet
Union, could yet cast a shadow over the talks.

“Differences over fundamental issues are standing in the way of a complete
‘resetting’ of relations”, the influential Kommersant daily said in a front
page report.

“The parties have not yet come to an agreement on such fundamental issues as
Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organisation … Georgia’s territorial
integrity and, most importantly, the USA’s plans to deploy the elements of
its missile defence system in Europe”.

A poll released on the eve of Obama’s arrival showed Russian distrust of the
United States. The University of Maryland survey found 75 percent of
Russians believed the United States abused its greater power and only two
percent had “a lot of confidence” Obama would do the right thing in world
affairs.

Medvedev, in an interview released on Sunday, said the United States would
only get a full arms control treaty with Moscow if it dropped unilateral
plans for missile defence – a linkage which Obama has rejected.

The US leader also faces an awkward first meeting on Tuesday with Prime
Minister Vladimir Putin, Russia’s most powerful politician, after publicly
criticising him last week.

Obama, in an interview, said Putin still had one foot mired in Cold War
thinking and compared him unfavourably with Medvedev, Putin’s chosen
successor as president. Putin hit back, saying Russians “are standing firmly
on both feet”.

In an indication of the strained atmosphere, Russia’s Kremlin-controlled main
television channels – the chief source of news for most Russians – have
played down Obama’s visit.

“This is being played as essentially a low-key visit that shows the American
leadership’s respect for the Russian leadership,” Dmitry Trenin, head of the
Moscow Carnegie Centre think-tank, said. “This is not some star coming to
town.”

The Other Russia and Solidarity opposition movements announced plans for a
protest rally in central Moscow on Monday evening to coincide with Obama’s
visit.

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