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U.S.-Russia talks yield no breakthroughs

Obama leaves with important, if measured, agreements. But the contentious issues -- Iran, U.S. missile defense, human rights -- went unbridged.

July 08, 2009|Christi Parsons and Megan K. Stack

MOSCOW — There was a time when an American president would travel to Moscow for a summit and the world watched intently to see if history would be made.

These days, most people seem prepared to settle for more modest outcomes.

That was the ambiguous result of Barack Obama's first trip as president to meet with his Russian counterparts. Obama came away from two days of talks with important, if not momentous, agreements to renew nuclear arms talks and allow U.S. warplanes to fly through Russian airspace on their way to Afghanistan.

But long-standing differences -- on U.S. missile defense plans, human rights and the response to Iran's nuclear ambitions -- remained unbridged.

Nor was it certain that Obama succeeded in his attempt to overcome years of deteriorating relations and alleviate wider Russian mistrust of U.S. aims by speaking over the heads of the country's elite to those outside the realm of power.

In a bit of characteristic stagecraft, the president took his message to a large assembly of the young and educated, speaking at the commencement ceremonies of the New Economic School. He reminded Russians of their nation's shared sacrifice with the United States in defeating fascism in the mid-20th century, and said that 21st century America was not trying to hold the country back.

"Let me be clear: America wants a strong, peaceful and prosperous Russia," Obama said. "This belief is rooted in our respect for the Russian people, and a shared history between our nations that goes beyond competition."

But none of Russia's domestic television channels carried the speech live. And the event was more heavily attended by Western-leaning intelligentsia and business community representatives than by members of Russia's ruling elite. News programs later played clips of the speech -- with newscasters adding pointedly that Obama's arrival onstage interrupted the distribution of diplomas to the school's students.

Still, Russian news reports zeroed in on a few subtle shifts in rhetoric. Obama said that NATO sought to cooperate with, not antagonize, Russia.

He said the Cold War ended thanks to ordinary people in Eastern Europe. He quoted Pushkin, praised a Russian athlete and evoked the days when the United States and the Soviet Union were united in battle against Nazi Germany and its allies. All of those points were enthusiastically repeated in newscasts.

Yet beneath his meticulously respectful tone, Obama's speech contained the usual points of contention with the Russian government.

He mentioned the importance of the sovereignty of Ukraine and Georgia, the latter of which fought and lost a short war with Russia last summer.

And Obama leveled vague but unmistakable criticisms of Russia's repressive domestic political environment.

"He delivered a strong message in a soft tone," said Vladimir Milov, president of the Moscow-based Institute of Energy Policy. "It was a very stark contrast to speeches given by President Bush. He was not lecturing anybody and he was speaking from himself and he was sure of what he wanted to say."

Later, aides said the approach reflected Obama's view that finger-wagging by an American president won't promote democracy and human rights around the globe.

Instead, the speech was largely pragmatic, with much of it devoted to the importance of Russian cooperation in relieving some of America's most pressing foreign policy troubles.

Despite earlier signals that planned missile shield installations in Eastern Europe might be abandoned, Obama has recently stopped short of saying whether the U.S. would go through with the controversial bases.

In his speech Tuesday, he pointed out that Russia could render the bases unnecessary by lending more diplomatic muscle to nuclear talks with Iran.

The United States has been pushing Moscow to apply pressure on Tehran, and to contribute to efforts to pacify Afghanistan and help resolve international conflicts with North Korea.

It also remains to be seen whether Obama was able to forge the basis for a working relationship with Russia's governing tandem of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is widely considered the real power behind the Russian state.

Obama's Tuesday morning meeting with Putin ran over schedule because the two leaders were discussing Iran, a government spokesman said.

"It looked like the conversation on Iran went on for some time," Yuri Ushakov told reporters. "Obama said emphatically that Russia and the United States could cooperate more intensively on Iran, that Russia's role is extremely important there.

"Obama made it understood that America wanted Russia to remain in one boat with the Americans," Ushakov said.

After meeting with the Russian leaders, Obama spoke directly to business leaders holding their own summit at a Moscow exhibition hall. And he met with dissidents and opposition figures, including chess legend Garry Kasparov, Leonid Gozman of the Right Cause party and Boris Nemtsov of the Solidarity movement.

Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and fiery critic of Putin's government, said Obama listened to a tough, critical discussion of Russian lawlessness from one of the lawyers for jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is facing a second trial on charges of embezzlement and money laundering.

Khodorkovsky and his supporters claim the government is using the law to target its political enemies.

Nemtsov said he came away with the impression that Obama was well aware of Russia's autocratic tendencies, but was also acting out of a sense of pragmatism.

"He believes that not only Putin and Medvedev represent Russia, but also the opposition represents Russia," Nemtsov said. "On the other hand, he understands that America and Russia face huge problems, huge threats -- the Taliban in Afghanistan, North Korea missiles, Iran.

"No matter who's in charge inside the Kremlin," he said, Obama knows: "America has to connect."


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