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Medvedev, Obama Accent The Positive In First Meeting

  • Brian Whitmore

Presidents Dmitry Medvedev (left) and Barack Obama at their initial meeting in London on April 1

Presidents Dmitry Medvedev (left) and Barack Obama at their initial meeting in London on April 1

Signs of a thaw in U.S.-Russian relations solidified on April 1 after U.S. President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev held their first face-to-face meeting, on the sidelines of the G20 summit in London.

The presidents announced in a joint statement that the two sides will pursue a new nuclear arms reduction deal. Obama also told reporters that he has accepted an invitation from Medvedev to visit Moscow in July.

"What I believe we've begun today is a very constructive dialogue that will allow us to work on issues of mutual interest like the reduction of nuclear weapons and the strengthening of our nonproliferation treaties, our mutual interest in dealing with terrorism and extremism that threatens both countries," Obama told reporters after the meeting, adding that it marked the "beginning of new progress in U.S.-Russian relations" after years of drift.

Medvedev, for his part, added that the two leaders "discussed practically all issues that concern our countries" and managed to find a good deal of common ground.

"This is only the beginning of discussions, but in my view, today's discussion showed that there are many more positions that bring us together than those that pull us apart," Medvedev said.

In their joint statement, Medvedev and Obama said they have instructed negotiators "to start talks immediately" on an agreement replacing the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which expires in December. Negotiators will report the first results of their talks in July.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs says the two countries have not settled on a new cap. Officials say the proposed new arms deal would go beyond the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), which committed both sides to cutting arsenals to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads by 2012.

A Good Rapport

Speaking before his meeting with Medvedev, Obama said by reducing their own nuclear arsenals, the United States and Russia would be better able to curb the spread of nuclear weapons elsewhere.

"Both the United States and Russia and other nuclear powers will be in a much stronger position to strengthen what has become a somewhat fragile, threadbare nonproliferation treaty if we are leading by example, and if we can take serious steps to reduce the nuclear arsenal," Obama said.

A senior U.S. official said Obama and Medvedev had "a good rapport" in the meeting, adding that since the two are roughly the same age and were both trained as lawyers, they shared "a common language."
Obama made it clear to the Russian leader that Moscow's desire for a 'sphere of influence' in the former Soviet Union was 'an idea whose time is long past'


Obama and Medvedev also agreed to work together on Afghanistan, saying that "Al-Qaeda and other terrorist and insurgent groups operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan pose a common threat to many nations, including the United States and Russia."

The statement said Moscow and Washington would "work toward and support a coordinated international response with the UN playing a key role."

On Iran, the statement said that while under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, "Iran has the right to a civilian nuclear program," but added that Tehran "needs to restore confidence in its exclusively peaceful nature."

Analysts say despite the warm words coming from both sides, it is still premature to declare that a new thaw in U.S.-Russian relations is under way.

"Everything does not depend exclusively on Obama and Medvedev. Much depends on the respective elites in the two countries," says Yevgeny Volk, head of the Moscow branch of the conservative Heritage Foundation think-tank. "It must be said that Russia has a significant amount of distrust for America. And the United States, for its part, also has a basis for not completely trusting Russia."

Fallout From Georgia War

That mistrust is still evident in the way the two sides view the war between Russia and neighboring Georgia in August 2008.

The two presidents conceded in their statement that Moscow and Washington continue to disagree about the "causes and sequence of the military actions" in the five-day war.

When Russian troops invaded Georgia after Tbilisi tried to recapture the pro-Moscow breakaway region of South Ossetia by force in August, it marked a post-Cold War nadir in Washington's relations with Moscow.

The United States has forged close ties with Tbilisi and had been a strong advocate of Georgia joining NATO. Moscow, which sees the South Caucasus as its sphere of influence, has staunchly opposed this.

A senior U.S. administration official said that in their meeting, Obama and Medvedev "had real disagreements about Georgia." The official said that Obama made it clear to the Russian leader that Moscow's desire for a "sphere of influence" in the former Soviet Union was "an idea whose time is long past."

The two presidents also acknowledged that there were lingering differences over Washington's plans to build elements of a missile defense system in Central Europe. But they held out the possibility of future cooperation on the issue.

Obama has shown less enthusiasm for the missile-defense proposal than his predecessor George W. Bush and has indicated to Medvedev that Washington would consider scrapping the idea if Moscow assisted in curbing Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

Since coming to office in January, the Obama administration has stressed its desire to "press the reset button" with Russia and improve relations, which have steadily deteriorated in recent years. The Kremlin has made clear it expects Washington to initiate the effort by offering concessions.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs says, however, that restoring relations will take efforts from both sides. Gibbs told reporters this week that "nobody believes that change in our relationship means giving everyone all they want... That's certainly not the intention of the president."

Volk says that thawing relations between Moscow and Washington will be a "long and difficult" process, especially once it becomes apparent the hard trade-offs that each side will be forced to make in order to improve relations.

"If you take any international problem, there is more tension between Russia and the United States than there is common ground," Volk said.
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