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Putin's invite to Obama: a formality or a good omen?

Many in Moscow see Putin's invitation to Obama to visit Russia as diplomatic decorum unlikely to warm a chilly relationship. But others suggest that the Russian leader may be ready to deal.

By Correspondent / November 14, 2012

Russian President Vladimir Putin (l.) shakes hands with the head of Russia's presidential council on human rights, Mikhail Fedotov, during a meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow Monday.

Yuri Kochetkov/AP

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Moscow

Barack Obama has agreed to hold a summit meeting in Moscow soon, after Russian President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly called him up Tuesday night and extended the invite.

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Some Russian experts say it's a measure of how quickly unusual things can happen in a political system in which a single figure, Mr. Putin, holds so many strings of power in his hands.

The prevailing view in Moscow is that the bilateral US-Russia agenda is too badly stalemated, especially on the critical issue of missile defense, for any breakthroughs to occur in what most agree is an increasingly troubled relationship. In this view, Putin is just going through the motions of making nice with the newly reelected Mr. Obama, and no one should expect anything more than a few photo ops and well-meaning rhetoric from the meeting, whose date has yet to be set.

But others argue that fresh and dramatic departures may be coming, and that people should have guessed it last March when an open mic at a Seoul, South Korea, meeting caught Obama telling then-President Dmitry Medvedev to ask Putin to "give me space" until after the November US presidential election. "This is my last election," Obama told Mr. Medvedev. "After my election I have more flexibility."

"Now the elections are over, and [Putin and Obama] can move on to the next stage," says Sergei Markov, vice rector of the Plekhanov Economic University in Moscow and a frequent Putin adviser in the past.

"Putin views Obama soberly, and sees him as a man who keeps his promises. Obama realizes that Putin has very strong capacities of leadership; in other words, he's a man who can make deals," Mr. Markov adds. "The bad period in our relationship is over, and there are objectively very good possibilities for a new beginning."

Obama came into office nearly four years ago pledging to "reset" the US-Russia relationship after several years of deepening chill under George W. Bush. The consensus in Russia is that he succeeded. Within a year the two sides signed the first full-scale nuclear arms reduction treaty since the cold war, New START, and also established a raft of bilateral government commissions – the sort of forum Russian bureaucrats adore – to discuss issues of mutual concern. Earlier this year, Russia agreed to give the United States routine access to a major central Russian air base to assist in efforts to resupply embattled NATO forces in Afghanistan.

"The current US president is someone you can do business with; he is a man who listens to other people’s arguments, knows how to communicate and can take decisions. We do not always agree, but if he adopted decisions he ultimately implemented them," Medvedev, now prime minister, told Finnish journalists Tuesday.

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