x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Obama to Russia: Let's be friends

The US president tells students in Moscow that the relationship between their two countries should be based on mutual respect.

Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin chat at the Russian prime minister's summer home near Moscow.
Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin chat at the Russian prime minister's summer home near Moscow.

MOSCOW // US President Barack Obama, seeking to rekindle ties with a wary Russia, told Russian students yesterday that the two countries are not "destined to be antagonists" and must abandon the mentality of a "zero-sum game" that has characterised their bilateral relations. Addressing graduates of the New Economic School on the second and final day of his visit to Moscow, Mr Obama pushed his policy of a "reset" of relations with Russia on a basis of mutual respect while touching on contentious issues such as human rights, US plans for a missile defence system and Russia's influence in former Soviet satellite states. "There is the 20th century view that the United States and Russia are destined to be antagonists, and that a strong Russia or a strong America can only assert themselves in opposition to one another," Mr Obama said in his commencement speech. "And there is a 19th century view that we are destined to vie for spheres of influence, and that great powers must forge competing blocs to balance one another." He dismissed both "assumptions" as "wrong". While Mr Obama reiterated the importance of bilateral co-operation on issues such as battling terrorism and halting nuclear proliferation, he went out of his way on several occasions to address deep suspicions that Russians hold about the United States. A common accusation promoted in Russia's state-controlled media in recent years is that the US wants a weak Russia in order to exploit its natural resources. "Let me be clear: America wants a strong, peaceful, and prosperous Russia," Mr Obama said. He acknowledged Russia's opposition to US plans to deploy elements of a missile defence system in Poland and Czech Republic while adding that his administration is "reviewing these plans to enhance the security of America, Europe and the world". He also alluded to tensions over the former Soviet republics Ukraine and Georgia, which border Russia and have enraged the Kremlin with their bids to join Nato. Russia crushed Georgia in a short war last year that saw the Kremlin recognise two pro-Moscow rebel Georgian regions, angering the West. "States must have the right to borders that are secure, and to their own foreign policies ? Any system that cedes those rights will lead to anarchy," Mr Obama said. "That's 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." Mr Obama's venue for delivering the address was significant: the New Economic School is a bastion of liberal thought in Russia's higher education system, which has increasingly toed the Kremlin line in recent years. Konstantin Sonin, a professor at the New Economic School and a respected political commentator, said Mr Obama appears to be trying to radically alter the paradigm of US-Russian relations by abandoning both the mindsets of the Cold War and the blind optimism of the post-Soviet years. "It seems as if he is trying to introduce a new concept of normal [relations], without brotherly love but without antagonism as well," Mr Sonin said. Mr Obama's speech will be seen as a key moment in US-Russian relations should ties between the two countries improve in line with the vision spelt out by the US president, Mr Sonin said. "If a new confrontation emerges, then the speech will be quickly forgotten," he said. Mr Obama's speech followed a meeting yesterday morning with Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister widely seen as the country's most powerful man, though according to the Russian Constitution he has significantly less powers than Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president. It was the first meeting between Mr Obama and Mr Putin, who sparred lightly in the press ahead of the US president's visit, with Mr Obama saying the Russian prime minister is holding on to a Cold War mentality. With both men looking slightly uncomfortable ahead of their two-hour working breakfast, Mr Obama offered some praise for Mr Putin, but stumbled over his title. "I'm aware of not only the extraordinary work that you've done on behalf of the Russian people in your previous role as prime minister - as president, but in your current role as prime minister," he said in comments aired on Russian state television. Mr Putin, meanwhile, told Mr Obama that Russia links "hopes for development of our relationship with your name". In an interview with CBS News following his meeting with Mr Putin at the prime minister's summer residence outside Moscow, Mr Obama called him "smart, tough, shrewd ? he is unsentimental. He thinks in terms of what's good for Russia and will pursue interests aggressively, but he also wants to approach US-Russian relations in a pragmatic way," Mr Obama told CBS. Mr Obama was also to meet the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev yesterday, as well as members of the Russian political opposition, including the former world chess champion Garry Kasparov. cschreck@thenational.ae