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Will U.S.-Russia Summit Finally Begin 'Reset'?

  • Gregory Feifer

Likenesses of U.S. President Barack Obama (left) and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, on nesting dolls in Moscow

Likenesses of U.S. President Barack Obama (left) and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, on nesting dolls in Moscow

U.S. President Barack Obama hopes to reinvigorate Washington's moribund relations with Moscow as he travels to Russia for his first summit meeting with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev on July 6.

But the two sides face serious divisions, and few are predicting the visit will produce anything close to a breakthrough.

Tensions have particularly mounted over Russia's military foray into Georgia, NATO expansion plans, and U.S. plans to deploy a missile-defense shield in Central Europe.

Vice President Joe Biden unveiled Washington's mantra for its new Russia policy at a security conference in Munich in February, saying "it's time to press the 'reset' button."

Best Intentions

Despite a previous meeting between the new U.S. leader and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April, Obama's debut summit meeting in Moscow is seen as the first major test of U.S. policy, the moment the button will -- or won't -- be pushed.

Obama is scheduled to see Medvedev on July 6 before meeting with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who still holds considerable power in the country and whom Obama recently accused of having "one foot" still planted firmly in the Cold War era, on July 7.

Washington has settled on arms control in its long-term strategy to draw Moscow into a new dialogue by stressing areas of mutual interest. Both sides say they want to reach a new deal by December to replace the 1991 START nuclear-arms treaty that expires this year.

U.S. Representative Robert Wexler (Democrat, Florida), who chairs the House subcommittee on foreign affairs with Europe, says a positive start on arms control could help with thornier issues.

He tells RFE/RL that whether on antimissile defense, Iranian nuclear activities, energy security, Georgia, or NATO issues, "all of these issues can hopefully be better addressed with a greater degree of trust than has been the case over the last several years."

Michael McFaul, the National Security Council's senior director for Russian and Eurasian Affairs, says Obama has no illusions about the yawning divide between Moscow and Washington.

"[Russian officials] think of the world in zero-sum terms," McFaul says. "The United States is considered an adversary...and they think that our number-one objective in the world is to make Russia weaker, to surround Russia, to do things that make us stronger and Russia weaker."

'Frank' Discussion

McFaul says Obama will demonstrate that's not the case by setting out American national interests "very explicitly" on issues such as NATO expansion.

"We're going to talk about them very frankly, as we did in April when we first met with President Medvedev, and then we're going to see if there are ways that we can have Russia cooperate on things we define as our national interests," McFaul says.

McFaul says Obama will seek to open a discussion not just with Medvedev and Putin but also with Russian society by taking part in meetings with business and civil society leaders.

Moscow says it wants better relations, too. But it's made clear the onus is on Washington to change its policies.

At the same time, the Kremlin has insisted on tough new conditions on an arms-control deal, and insists on linking a new arms deal to U.S. plans for a missile-defense system, which Washington maintains is a separate issue.

The summit will provide a report card on the progress of arms negotiations.

Sarah Mendelson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says she doesn't expect "high grades," saying Washington's bid to repair relations with Moscow is a "gamble."

"The focus is really to try and give both the Russian government but also Russian society a platform to be able to see if there is the possibility of a new and different relationship," Mendelson says.

Preventing A Collapse?

The thorniest issue at the center of the current standoff between Moscow and Washington may be the NATO aspirations of U.S. allies Georgia and Ukraine. Moscow's invasion of Georgia last year sank relations with the West to Cold War lows.

The Kremlin continues to violate the French-brokered terms of the cease-fire by recognizing the independence of Georgia's pro-Moscow breakaway regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where Russia maintains thousands of troops.

The Russian military is currently conducting major exercises north of Georgia's border set to end the day Obama arrives in Moscow.

Foreign policy scholar Georgy Mirsky says such actions show Russia's leaders have no intention of improving relations.

"World outlook is different," Mirsky says. "I'm not sure if people like Putin and Medvedev and those around them really understand the workings of the American political system or really sincerely believe in the good intentions of Mr. Obama."

But Mirsky says that despite its anti-American rhetoric, Moscow does not want a real confrontation with Washington.

He says if anything, the summit may serve only to help prevent a complete collapse in relations.

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