Obama heads to Moscow for "reset" summit
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Obama heads to Moscow for “reset” summit
Sun Jul 5, 2009 12:08pm EDT
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama heads to Moscow on Sunday promising a far-reaching effort to “reset” U.S.-Russia relations that hit a post-Cold War low under the Bush administration.
Obama is expected to clinch summit deals on the outlines of a new nuclear arms pact and improved cooperation in the Afghan war effort, but deep divisions will remain over U.S. missile defense, NATO expansion and the 2008 Russia-Georgia war.
Traveling to Moscow for the first time since taking office, he hopes to keep building pragmatic ties with President Dmitry Medvedev but is likely to have a more strained introduction to Vladimir Putin, who still dominates Russian politics.
Obama set the stage with a pre-trip assessment that Putin still had “one foot” planted in the Cold War. Putin, who hand-picked Medvedev as his successor last year and has stayed on as prime minister, rejected Obama’s criticism and insisted it was U.S. policy that needed to be updated.
Despite the testy exchange, the two sides have settled on the old issue of arms control as the cornerstone for forging a less rancorous relationship between Washington and Moscow.
“I seek to reset relations with Russia because I believe that Americans and Russians have many common interests, interests that our governments recently have not pursued as actively as we could have,” Obama told the Russian opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta ahead of the summit.
He was due to leave Washington later on Sunday and hold talks with Medvedev at the Kremlin on Monday.
Though details remained under wraps, the two presidents were expected to lay down markers for negotiating further cuts in the arsenals of the two biggest nuclear powers.
The talks will form the basis for a treaty to be signed by December, when an existing pact known as START-1 expires. The aim is to reduce the number of deployed warheads below the 1,700-2,200 allowed under the current pact.
The summit will also yield the Kremlin’s permission to ship U.S. weapons supplies across Russian territory en route to U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, sources on both sides said.
The transit deal will open up a crucial corridor for the United States as it steps up its fight against a resurgent Taliban in line with Obama’s new Afghanistan strategy.
The two agreements will be touted as evidence that both sides want to “press the reset button” — to use Washington’s phrase — on their rocky relations of recent years.
But it will be harder to bridge the gap on other issues.
Obama acknowledged in the Novaya Gazeta interview “Russian sensitivities” over a proposed U.S. anti-missile shield in Europe. But he made clear he would not accept any effort by Moscow to link arms control talks to missile defense.
Moscow, which sees proposed missile-defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic as a threat to its security, has insisted in recent weeks that the two issues are intertwined.
Obama reiterated the U.S. stance that any system would be to protect against a missile threat from Iran, not from Russia, and said he hoped to convince Moscow to join in the project.
He has been less enthusiastic about the missile shield than his predecessor, George W. Bush, but seems unlikely to abandon it altogether without getting something in return.
Obama has said if Iran‘s development of nuclear capability can be averted there will be no need for a shield, a suggested incentive for Russia to use its influence with Tehran.
Aides also maintain he has no intention of offering concessions on limiting NATO expansion. Despite that, he has been less assertive than Bush in pushing NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, something Russia fiercely opposes.
Obama and Medvedev promised a fresh start when they met for the first time in April at a G20 summit in London.
Whatever Obama might achieve this time, he will also have to win over Putin, who could be in a prickly mood after Obama’s comments in an Associated Press interview that Putin was still mired in Cold War thinking. The two will meet on Tuesday.
Putin forged a personal rapport with Bush but that did not prevent U.S.-Russian relations from deteriorating badly, especially after Russia’s brief war with U.S. ally Georgia.
Although Russia’s constitution formally gives Medvedev the leading role, most diplomats and analysts believe Putin still controls all the important decisions behind the scenes.
Another point of contention could be Obama’s meetings with opposition politicians and democracy activists as well as with former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
Russia will be Obama’s first stop on a weeklong tour that will also take him to Italy for a G8 summit and to Ghana, his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa since becoming the first black U.S. president.