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Obama Urges Partnership With Russia, But Also Issues Challenges

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to graduating students at Moscow's New Economic School.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to graduating students at Moscow's New Economic School.

(RFE/RL) -- In a major foreign-policy speech on the second day of his visit to Russia, U.S. President Barack Obama said the United States and Russia can put aside their past roles as adversaries and cooperate on common interests like stopping the spread of nuclear weapons.

But Obama also issued challenges to Russia, saying states should respect international borders, citizens’ rights, and the rule of law.

Obama, in a speech to graduating students from Moscow’s New Economic School, said it was necessary to jettison old ways of thinking that the two powers were destined to be adversaries.

Instead, he offered them a vision of a future made safer because of closer ties between Russia and the United States.

"This will not be easy. It is difficult to forge a lasting partnership between former adversaries, it's hard to change habits that have been ingrained in our governments, in our bureaucracies, for decades," Obama said. "But I believe that on the fundamental issues that will shape this century, Americans and Russians share common interests that form a basis for cooperation."

Coinciding Interests

Obama said there were several such areas where interests generally coincided, such as halting the spread of nuclear weapons, fighting extremism, and ensuring economic prosperity.

He said Moscow and Washington could deal jointly with Iran's and North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev listens to Obama's speech. Obama met with Gorbachev earlier in the day.
Obama displayed some charm, too. He honored the Soviet Union's sacrifices in World War II, and hailed Russian contributions in culture and science.

The U.S. president, who had made statements critical of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the days before the summit, did not directly criticize the Kremlin in his speech.

But parts of his address were a challenge to Russia’s leaders and likely to resonate with the country's opposition.

He took aim at corruption, a corrosive part of everyday life, and said states should respect international borders, citizens' rights, and the rule of law.

The United States is not perfect, he said, but its political systems have allowed women and other groups to agitate for equal rights, its independent media exposes corruption, and competitive elections hold leaders accountable.

Governments that serve their own people survive and thrive, he said. Governments that serve only their own power do not.

State Sovereignty

And he touched on Georgia, whose invasion by Russia last year put an icy chill into relations between Moscow and Washington.

"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," Obama said.

"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," he said.

Obama's speech was delayed because a morning meeting with Putin lasted longer than planned.

He also had what the White House called a "good meeting" with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Obama is due to see President Dmitry Medvedev again on July 7, before meeting civil society and opposition leaders.

On July 6, the two presidents met and agreed to seek a cut in their nuclear stockpiles by up to one-third.

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