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NEWS ANALYSIS

How Obama speech sounds to Russian ears

What President Obama said to a Moscow audience and what Russia's political elite heard were not necessarily one and the same -- even when his words sought to reassure.

July 08, 2009|Megan K. Stack

reporting from moscow

On U.S. missile defense plans

'I know Russia opposes the planned configuration for missile defense in Europe. And my administration is reviewing these plans to enhance the security of America, Europe and the world. And I've made it clear that this system is directed at preventing a potential attack from Iran. It has nothing to do with Russia. In fact, I want to work together with Russia on a missile defense architecture that makes us all safer. But if the threat from Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programs is eliminated, the driving force for missile defense in Europe will be eliminated, and that is in our mutual interest.'

- Russian officials think U.S. officials are lying when they say that planned missile shield installations in Eastern Europe are meant to defend against possible Iranian attack. The Kremlin views the bases as a threat to Russia, and had hoped the new administration would drop the idea. Obama has so far stayed noncommittal; here, he hints at using the planned bases as a bargaining chip. If you don't want radar and interceptors near your border, Obama tells the Russians, you'd better get a lot more helpful with Iran. Moscow could wield decisive influence in nuclear talks with Tehran, but instead has opted for a cozy relationship and lucrative business deals, including the construction of a nuclear power plant in Iran. Some Moscow insiders say the Kremlin doesn't take Iranian weapons seriously. After all, they say, the nukes won't be pointed at us.

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On justice and the rule of law

'It is our commitment to certain universal values which allows us to correct our imperfections, to improve constantly and to grow stronger over time. Freedom of speech and assembly has allowed women, minorities and workers to protest for full and equal rights at a time when they were denied. The rule of law and equal administration of justice has busted monopolies, shut down political machines that were corrupt and ended abuses of power. . . . Competitive elections allow us to change course and hold our leaders accountable. . . . Governments which serve their own people survive and thrive; governments which serve only their own power do not.'

- Obama couldn't get out of Moscow without a few backhanded criticisms of Russia's many political shortcomings. Here is the reminder that Russia represses peaceful protests, engineers deeply flawed elections, controls the media, squelches dissent and generally exists without rule of law. He is trying to be gentle by discussing America instead of directly bashing Russia, but many Russians will cringe at the comparison. Russians often complain that America turns a blind eye to its own shortcomings while instructing other countries to be more like the United States. Still, Russia's political elite will understand that the U.S. president could have been much more harsh and direct. (The term "human rights" appears only once in the speech.) While trotting out the obligatory criticisms, Obama is taking a relatively soft line with Russia, perhaps signaling a willingness to momentarily set aside complaints about Moscow's governance in exchange for badly needed help with Afghanistan, North Korea and Iran.

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On respect for borders

'State sovereignty must be a cornerstone of international order. Just as all states should have the right to choose their leaders, states must have the right to borders that are secure, and to their own foreign policies. That is true for Russia, just as it is true for the United States. Any system that cedes those rights will lead to anarchy. That is why we must apply this principle to all nations -- and that includes nations like Georgia and Ukraine. America will never impose a security arrangement on another country.'

- Here Obama is reprimanding Moscow on several points: for its war last year with Georgia; for insisting that Georgia's breakaway republics, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, are independent nations; and for interfering in Ukrainian politics. Russia's political elite would dismiss the American criticism as the height of hypocrisy. The mental response would go like this: Where was your interest in state sovereignty when you recognized the independence of Kosovo from Serbia last year? And how can you lecture us about secure borders after invading Iraq and Afghanistan, and while you are still occupying those lands? The Kremlin would argue that the United States is pursuing an agenda of its own in Ukraine and Georgia, trying to break down the two countries' historical ties to Moscow in order to undermine and contain Russian power.

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megan.stack@latimes.com

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