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Obama's visit to Russia stirs hope for a renewed partnership

Since President Obama took office, twice as many Russians report 'positive attitudes' toward the US. But skepticism continues to dominate ties between Washington and the Kremlin.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 5, 2009

A Russian Matryoshka doll decorated with images of President Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev was displayed at a market in Moscow Friday.

Denis Sinyakov/Reuters



President Obama arrives Monday for two days of meetings with Kremlin leaders, which may help him to determine whether, going forward, Russia will be an ally of the US, an adversary, or just another distraction amid a rising sea of global woes.

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A very full schedule for Mr. Obama, which includes a lengthy working session with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Monday, breakfast with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, plus a major foreign policy address and meetings with Russian civil society activists, has done little to calm worries that the agenda holds out scant hope for any strategic breakthrough between the two countries, whose relations have descended into Cold War-style shouting matches at several points in recent years.

"Unfortunately, our agenda contains too many difficult issues; I'll be surprised if we can solve any of them," says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the Russian State Duma's foreign affairs commission. "The main task of the presidents is to give an impulse to their respective administrations, to get them moving on mutual problems so that maybe we'll see some results by the end of this year."

Both Obama and Mr. Medvedev issued the obligatory pre-summit statements, accentuating the positive and laying out ambitious hopes for progress in arms control, nonproliferation, counter-terrorism, energy cooperation, and economic development.

"Russia is a great country with an extraordinary culture and extraordinary traditions," Obama said in an interview with Russian state TV Friday. "It remains one of the most powerful countries in the world and has, I think, enormous potential for being a force for stability and prosperity in the international community."

Speaking via his new LiveJournal blog, Medvedev praised the Obama White House for "showing its willingness to change the situation and build more effective, reliable, and ultimately more modern relations. We are ready to play our part."

From scowl to smile?

The Russian public appears to have caught at least a touch of that optimism. A survey released Friday by the independent Russian Public Opinion Research Center found that 46 percent of Russians have a "positive" attitude toward the US. That's dramatically up from 22 percent in a similar poll last September, following Russia's brief summer war with neighboring Georgia. Thirty-three percent last week described their feelings about the US as "negative," compared with 65 percent in September.

But in many key areas where experts had hoped for rapid improvement in relations problems appear to be piling up faster than projected solutions. The euphoric expectation that Obama might quickly "reset" the troubled Moscow-Washington equation has long since worn off.