x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Obama's first visit to Russia

The US president arrives in Moscow to "reset" the rocky relations between the former Cold War foes.

MOSCOW // Barack Obama arrives in Moscow today for meetings with the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, and Vladimir Putin, Russia's powerful prime minister, with the US president saying part of his plan is to "reset" the rocky relations between the two former Cold War foes. Mr Obama is making his first trip to Russia as president, and he and his Russian counterpart are expected to discuss reductions in nuclear arsenals, co-operation in US-led operations in Afghanistan, and Russia's attempts to defend what it sees as its sphere of influence in former Soviet satellite states. Beyond several agreements expected to be signed, however, the summit's most significant result might be a fresh start in US-Russian relations, which withered during the Bush administration and sank to a post-Soviet low after Russia's short war with neighbouring Georgia - a staunch US ally - last August. Both Mr Obama and Mr Medvedev have signalled in the lead-up to their meeting that they are focused on cementing co-operation in areas of mutual interest while maintaining an open dialogue on contentious issues, such as Nato expansion and US plans to place elements of a missile defence system in eastern Europe, which has rankled Russia. In the latest video posted on his blog, Mr Medvedev conceded that US-Russia relations had "slipped practically to the level of a Cold War", and encouraged the "opening a new page in Russian-American co-operation". "The new administration headed by President Obama now demonstrates a readiness to change the situation and build a more effective, more reliable and finally more modern relationship. And we are ready for this," the Russian president said in the video. In an interview with Italy's RAI television, Mr Medvedev said both sides were "reasonably" optimistic about improved ties. "I hear what my colleague, President Obama, is saying. And for that reason we await the visit of the US president to our country with great interest," he said, according to a transcript of the interview released by the Kremlin. In an interview broadcast on Russian state television on Saturday, Mr Obama was comparably conciliatory, saying the United States "respects Russia" and wants "to build relations where we deal as equals". Mr Obama called Russia a "great country with extraordinary culture and traditions" that "remains one of the most powerful countries in the world". He described Mr Medvedev as a "thoughtful, forward-looking individual" who is "doing a fine job of leading Russia into the 21st century". The two leaders are expected to sign agreements on nuclear arms reductions and US use of Russian air space to transport equipment to Afghanistan, where it is leading operations against Taliban forces. Signals from both sides show, however, that little progress should be expected on such issues as drives by western-leaning former Soviet states Georgia and Ukraine to join Nato, and the planned US missile defence system. Michael McFaul, Mr Obama's special assistant and senior director for Russian and Eurasian affairs, said that the US side would not be using Nato expansion or missile defence as trade-offs in dealing with Russia. "We're going to talk about them very frankly as we did in April when we first met with President Medvedev," Mr McFaul said. "And then we're going to see if there are ways that we can have Russia co-operate on those things that we define as our national interests." Tomorrow, Mr Obama is scheduled to meet with Mr Putin, Russia's powerful prime minister, who many believe remains the country's most powerful figure. It will be the first meeting between the two men, who have sparred lightly in the press before the visit. In an interview with the Associated Press last week, Mr Obama said Mr Putin, a former KGB officer whom critics have accused of stifling democracy, "has one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new". Mr Putin needled the US president over the comment on Friday, saying: "We stand firmly on our feet and always look to the future." Mr Putin added that he awaited Mr Obama's visit with "very warm feelings". Later tomorrow, Mr Obama is to deliver a commencement speech at the New Economic School in Moscow. Denis McDonough, the US deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, described the address as a "major speech" on US-Russian relations. Mr Obama tomorrow will also meet Mikhail Gorbachev, a former Soviet leader, as well as a group of civil activists and Kremlin critics. Such meetings between the Russian political opposition and foreign officials have irked the Kremlin in the past. A former British ambassador to Russia, Anthony Brenton, was stalked and hounded by pro-Kremlin youth activists after he met harsh Kremlin critics including a former world chess champion, Garry Kasparov, who is expected to attend tomorrow's meeting with Mr Obama. cschreck@thenational.ae