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Tough talks with Russia await Obama on trip abroad

Nuclear disarmament is sure to be at the top of the agenda as Obama meets with Russian leaders. After Moscow, Obama heads to Italy and a summit of the Group of 8 nations.

July 05, 2009|Christi Parsons

WASHINGTON — On his four previous foreign trips, President Obama was greeted by cheering crowds and smiling world leaders, a carefully planned global introduction that emphasized listening, collaboration and cooperation.

But as he prepares to go abroad again today, the White House is resetting its goals. Now the idea is to cast Obama not just as a likable, inspirational figure but also as a tough-minded world leader.

His first stop will be a sure test. Obama is scheduled to sit down with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, ostensibly No. 2 in the Kremlin, but who is widely believed to be the real power behind President Dmitry Medvedev.

Obama will also meet Medvedev, whom Putin handpicked to succeed him in 2008, with nuclear disarmament at the top of the agenda.

He then will give what is being billed as a major speech at the New Economic School, presenting to a broader audience his view of U.S.-Russia relations.

The president also plans to meet with Russian political and business leaders as a way to diversify Washington's relationship with Moscow beyond the traditional political power structure, White House officials say.

"The idea here is that this is not 1974," said Michael McFaul, special assistant to the president and senior director for Russian and Eurasian affairs. "This is not just where we do an arms control agreement with the Soviets, but that we have a multidimensional relationship with the Russian government and with the Russian people."

Though Russia is no longer a Cold War superpower, the U.S. still wants Moscow's help on a broad range of issues, including reining in Iran's nuclear program and in the war in Afghanistan. Administration officials are acutely aware of the peril of appearing weak.

President George W. Bush famously said that he looked into Putin's eyes and saw a man he could work with -- and then presided over a period of worsening U.S.-Russian relations. "Mr. Putin believes that, for now, Russia has the upper hand vis-a-vis the United States, and that Washington needs to make all of the fundamental concessions," said Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia program for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington.

Putin has "a chip on his shoulder -- about the size of the Rock of Gibraltar -- about the humiliations that Russia has supposedly had inflicted upon it by the West," Kuchins said. Russia has complained in recent years about former Soviet republics joining NATO, the U.S. plans to locate a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic and the American support for Georgia during its brief war with Russia last year.

In Washington, meanwhile, an array of voices is urging Obama to be tough with Russian leaders. A bipartisan group of senators sent a letter last week urging him to "make it known that Russia should not expect progress on issues of concern to Moscow if it does not take a tougher stance on Iran."

The White House has said that a clear-eyed view of "mutual interest" will guide U.S. policy.

"They're not prepared to make a lot of concessions merely to reach an agreement" on arms reductions, said Stephen Sestanovich, senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The Americans are going to say to the Russians, 'We're prepared to walk away.' We'll see who blinks first."

In the meantime, Obama has been sending his own explicit message.

"I think it's important that, even as we move forward with President Medvedev, that Putin understand that the old Cold War approaches to U.S.-Russian relations is outdated," the president said last week in an interview with the Associated Press. "Putin has one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new."

An aide to Putin fired back, saying that "after visiting Moscow, President Obama will know the realities better."

After Moscow, Obama is to head to Italy and a summit of the Group of 8 nations. He has convened a side meeting of major greenhouse gas emitting nations to discuss energy and climate and will also meet Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican.

And on his first presidential trip to sub-Saharan Africa, Obama is pointedly skipping his ancestral home of Kenya. Instead he will visit Ghana, among the continent's strongest democracies, to underscore his support of civil society and the rule of law.

After decades of political instability, Ghana has had five successive elections widely considered free and fair. The most recent election came down to a runoff won by the opposition party, and still resulted in a peaceful transition of power.

With the power he has to shape world perceptions, the first African American U.S. president is notably turning away from stories of chaos on the African continent. One of his key goals at the G-8 meeting is to insist on the participation of developing countries, in Africa and elsewhere.

"Ghana is not in crisis," said Michelle Gavin, the president's senior director for African affairs, "and it's an example for the region and more broadly."


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