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.

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

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.

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.

After Obama arrived in Washington some Russian experts had hoped that the accumulated East-West ill will would turn out to be an artifact of the former George W. Bush administration's unilateralism and inattention to Russia following 9/11. But that's been replaced by a realization that the geopolitical differences between Russia and the US are deep and abiding and that progress will probably have to be measured in tiny increments rather than major breakthroughs.

Arms reductions plans up in the air

One of the biggest disappointments is the complications around a new nuclear arms deal to replace the two-decade old START accord, which imposed ceilings of 6,000 strategic warheads and 1,600 delivery vehicles on each side. The two leaders are expected to sign a framework deal, that might bring those totals down to around 1,500 warheads on 1,100 missiles, but that will fall far short of Obama's aim of achieving zero nuclear weapons.

In recent weeks, Russian conservatives have mounted a media attack in opposition to even those modest goals, citing Russia's disproportionate reliance on its nuclear deterrent for security, and continued US determination to install anti-missile defenses in eastern Europe.

"Russia is not inclined to go very far in cutting down its nuclear weapons because of our relative weakness – and NATO's massive superiority – in conventional forces," says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow. "And we need to worry about US development of anti-missile systems, which could upset any balance of offensive weapons at some point in the future."

The White House has said it is "reviewing" plans to station missile interceptors in Poland, with associated radars in the Czech Republic. But Obama's special assistant on Russian affairs, Mike McFaul, suggested in a conference call with journalists last week that the US is in no mood to compromise on that, or with Russia's demands that Washington withdraw its backing for Ukraine and Georgia's eventual NATO membership.

"We're not going to reassure or give or trade anything with the Russians regarding NATO expansion or missile defense," Mr. McFaul said.

Afghanistan offers hope for partnership

On Monday, just as Obama is arriving, Russia will wrap up massive military exercises on its border with Georgia, timed to remind the world that Moscow sees the former Soviet Union as its special "sphere of influence." Russian leaders have repeatedly said that NATO membership for Ukraine or Georgia would cross a "red line" that might lead to conflict.

"It's quite clear that Obama is less engaged in the post-Soviet region than Bush was," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal. "But it's also obvious that he will never say that NATO expansion is over. So, the best we can hope for is caution on Washington's part. This region holds big potential for unpredictable explosions."

One ray of light is Moscow's growing willingness to support the struggling US-led Western operations in Afghanistan. Russian news agencies reported Friday that a deal would be inked between Obama and Medvedev to allow NATO to use a Russian "transport corridor" to resupply its forces with weaponry as well as non-lethal equipment. And last month, apparently with Russian acquiescence, the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan relented on a previous decision and agreed to allow US forces continued access to the Manas airbase, a vital link in Afghan resupply efforts.

Chess match over democracy

But controversy seems likely to attend Obama's efforts to reach out to Russia's beleaguered dissident community, which will include meetings with nongovernmental organizations, opposition parties and anti-Kremlin activists, such as chess champion Garry Kasparov. Obama will also match a recent controversial move by Medvedev, which riled Russian conservatives, by granting an interview to Russia's leading opposition newspaper, the weekly Novaya Gazeta.

In a Monitor OpEd last week, the director of advocacy for the Washington-based human rights watchdog Freedom House, Paula Schriefer, argued that Obama should go further, and use his Tuesday speech at Moscow's New Economic School to deliver a pro-democracy message to the Russian-speaking world over the heads of Kremlin leaders and the state-controlled media.

Some Russian liberals say Obama should be frank, but careful in what he says.

"I think people here might have a negative attitude," of an Obama speech that sounds critical of Russian authorities, says Sergei Mitrokhin, deputy chair of the liberal Yabloko Party, which lost its parliamentary representation five years ago amid a Kremlin crackdown on small parties.

"If the US looks like it's trying to teach us how to live, it will just play into the hands of Russian conservatives," he adds. "The best way to promote Russian democracy is to improve relations. The more positive ties between our countries, the better things will be."

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