Russia was today preparing to welcome Barack Obama for the first time as US president, heartened by his description of the country as an equal but also stunned by criticism of Vladimir Putin. Mr Obama arrives in Russia on Monday on a visit to mend ties frayed by a series of disputes. He is set to sign a deal on the transit of US military goods to Afghanistan and a framework on replacing a key Cold War-era weapons treaty.
The US president is due to have several hours of talks with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev as well as a shorter breakfast meeting with the strongman former Kremlin chief and current prime minister Putin. Russia has been eagerly awaiting the visit as proof of a change in the US attitudes towards Moscow but observers were astonished by a pre-summit interview in which Mr Obama said Mr Putin still had "one foot" in the Cold War.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Mr Obama said he believed "Putin has one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new." By contrast, Mr Obama said he had "a very good relationship" with Mr Medvedev. The mass-circulation Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper said Mr Obama was trying to break up the hitherto tight Russian ruling "tandem" of the president and the prime minister by taking sides.
"It seems that the Americans are undertaking a head-spinningly risky game with an unpredictable outcome," it said in a front-page article. "Washington has openly interfered in Russian political life and is stretching the ruling Kremlin tandem to breaking point. There has never been anything like this in all the zig-zags of relations between Washington and Moscow." Mr Putin hit back at the remark with his trademark cutting style, quipping that he was "firmly standing on both legs and always looking to the future."
In another interview, this time with state-run Rossia television and the ITAR-TASS news agency, Mr Obama lavished praise on Mr Medvedev and said he wanted the relationship with Russia to be one of equals. He described Mr Medvedev as a "thoughtful, forward-looking individual" who is "doing a fine job of leading Russia into the 21st century", according to excerpts of the interview published by ITAR-TASS.
The full version is due to be aired on Rossia later today. Meanwhile, Putin has been "a very strong leader for the Russian people," Mr Obama added. Mr Obama said his main aim for the visit was to communicate to the Russians that "we want to deal as equals", he said, according to ITAR-TASS. Russian officials have said Mr Medvedev and Mr Obama will sign a deal allowing the US to transport military supplies for operations in Afghanistan across Russian territory.
Previously, Washington has only been allowed by Moscow to transport non-lethal supplies by rail. The new deal should allow the United States to transport military supplies across Russia by air. The two sides are also set to sign a declaration setting up the framework for the renewal of the Cold War-era Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which expires in early December. Medvedev said in a statement today that he expects "concrete results" from the summit that will "open up new prospects for the development of our relations."
Ties between the United States and Russia plummeted to a post-Cold War low over Moscow's August war with Georgia but have warmed significantly under Obama with both sides vowing to press the "reset button" on relations. * AFP