Obama, Medvedev cite strong start in 'resetting' relations

From arms control to Afghanistan, analysts say the deals brokered by Obama and Medvedev could profoundly reshape global security.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Barack Obama and Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev talk before signing a preliminary agreement to reduce their nuclear stockpiles by as much as a third, the lowest levels of any U.S.-Russia accord, at a joint news conference at the Kremlin in Moscow, Monday.

Much better than expected.

That seems the initial reaction of Russian experts to the raft of agreements that emerged, along with a smiling Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev, from four hours of intensive talks in the Kremlin that covered everything from nuclear arms control to US meat imports to Russia.

"Yes, our relationship really has been 'reset' and put back on track," says Stanislav Belkovsky, president of the independent Institute of National Strategy in Moscow. "Both sides clearly wanted this to happen, and it was time."

Two deals inked Monday, on nuclear arms control and Afghanistan, hold out the potential to reshape the sometimes troubled US-Russia strategic relationship in ways that could reverberate positively through the larger problems of global security, Mr. Obama and Mr. Medvedev said in the Kremlin press conference.

"The US and Russia have responsibilities in almost everything that's happening on the planet," Medvedev said. "We have decided that the current level of our relations does not correspond to reality, or to what is needed to match the requirements of the 21st century."

Obama agreed that the relationship has "suffered from a sense of drift" in recent years, and added that "we are committed to set aside the suspicions and rivalry of the past" and work together on key global issues such as Middle East peace, designing a new nuclear nonproliferation regime for the world, and countering violent extremism.

As expected, the two agreed to finalize by year's end a fresh strategic arms control accord, to replace the soon-to-expire 1991 START treaty. The new proposal could slash offensive nuclear arsenals on both sides by at least one-third, to around 1,500 warheads deployed on somewhere between 500 and 1,100 delivery vehicles.

"Here, we are leading by example," said Obama.

Missile shield still up in the air

But beyond expectations was the suggestion, added by Obama, that longstanding and acrimonious differences over Washington's plans to build a globe-girdling antimissile shield – including deployments in Eastern Europe – might be worked out through compromise.

"For the first time ever, an American president has said that the opposing positions between Moscow and Washington on missile defense can be reconciled," says Yevgeny Bazhanov, vice rector of the official Diplomatic Academy in Moscow, which trains Russian diplomats.

Obama also seemed to agree with Russia's insistence that efforts to reduce offensive nuclear weapons must be coupled with moves toward controlling any spread of defensive weapons, as was done at the outset of cold war-era arms control.

The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was the keystone of subsequent efforts to limit strategic weapons, including the START treaty, but it was unilaterally scrapped by the Bush administration in 2002.

Current US plans call for stationing 10 antimissile interceptors in Poland, with associated radars in the Czech Republic. But Obama said that scheme is "under review," and could be the subject of future discussions with Moscow.

Russian experts say the ideal solution would involve a joint effort to guard against accidental missile launches or attacks by "rogue" states such as Iran or North Korea in the future.

The challenges of North Korea and Iran

Without offering many details, Obama said the two had held in-depth discussions on Iran and North Korea, which staged a series of illicit missile tests over the weekend. Russia, which hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shortly after his disputed election victory, has in the past disagreed sharply with the US about how to address Iran's alleged drive for nuclear weapons.

As for North Korea's growing nuclear brinksmanship in East Asia, Russian experts maintain that Moscow's once-considerable influence has fallen to virtually nil.

"What I hear is a new tone, which recognizes that both Russia and the US are deeply concerned about the spread of nuclear weapons and missile technology, and the need to work together to stop it," says Mr. Bazhanov. "There was a suggestion that we could move forward to jointly develop a missile defense system, and other measures to combat proliferation."

The path to Afghanistan leads through Russia

Another key deal will create a full-scale Russian "transport corridor" for the resupply of NATO forces in Afghanistan with weaponry as well as nonlethal material. But a special commission will look into other ways the two major powers – both of which have fought agonizing wars in Afghanistan – can compare notes and map out areas of cooperation (For more on that click here).

Obama doesn't take the bait

On Tuesday, Obama will deliver what's being billed as a major foreign policy address to students at Moscow's New School of Economics, meet with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and hold talks with representatives of Russia's embattled opposition parties and other civil society groups.

Obama is scheduled to hold a working breakfast with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, whom many experts believe to still be the dominant figure in Russian politics.

Asked if he has settled, in his own mind, the question of who's really in charge in the Kremlin, Obama punted.

"My strong impression is that President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin are working very effectively together," he said.

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