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President Obama tries to dispel Russian mistrust with speech on cooperation

MOSCOW — President Barack Obama laid out a vision of greater cooperation between the United States and Russia on Tuesday in a speech that also contained thinly veiled criticism of the Kremlin's authoritarian style of rule.

Washington and Moscow have shared interests that should lead to broader cooperation, Obama said during the last day of his trip to the Russian capital.

"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," Obama said in a speech to economics graduates. "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. These assumptions are wrong."

His critique seemed directed at the Russian leadership, which repeatedly has asserted that it has a "privileged" sphere of power in the region that the Soviet Union once dominated.

Obama delivered his message to the graduating class of the New Economic School, a group he described as being born after "the darkest hours of the Cold War," a demographic that has had much more exposure to the West than its predecessors have.

While he said that it was up to Russia to choose its own course, Obama told the audience he agreed with President Dmitry Medvedev about the need for an effective legal system. Critics of the government often complain about corruption — both official and private — and sometimes use it as a sort of code to express wider discontent with Kremlin policy.

Russia ranked behind Uganda, Kazakhstan and Yemen in the most recent Transparency International survey of corruption.

"The arc of history shows that governments which serve their own people survive and thrive; governments which serve only their own power do not," Obama said in remarks that weren't broadcast widely on state-dominated Russian media.

Before delivering his address, Obama had breakfast with Vladimir Putin in the prime minister's heavily guarded suburban home.

In welcoming Obama, Putin acknowledged that U.S.-Russia relations at times have experienced "periods of, shall we say, grayish mood."

During the past year, Russia has invaded Georgia — a U.S. ally — and cut gas supplies to Ukraine, also a U.S. ally.

The meeting, their first, stretched more than half an hour longer than expected.

Afterward, two Obama administration officials said that while Obama and Putin saw things differently in areas of long-standing tension, there were several topics on which they found common interest: antiterrorism measures, arms control, climate change and energy security.

Where they diverged, the leaders presented their positions clearly and avoided heated rhetoric of the sort that has characterized recent tensions with the Kremlin, they said.

Putin described his conversation with Obama as "very well-intentioned" and "substantial," according to Russian news wires.

In a Fox News interview, Obama said that, "on areas where we disagree … I don't anticipate a meeting of the minds anytime soon."

While the two sides gained ground during the past two days with commitments to nuclear arms reductions and transit for U.S. military supplies to Afghanistan, they were still divided about a planned American missile-defense shield and perceived Western interference in Russian neighbors such as Georgia and Ukraine.

Sergei Rogov, director of the Institute for the U.S. and Canadian Studies, said Obama's visit was more successful than most in Russia had expected. Obama "made all the right sounds in a very respectful way" and did much to reduce mistrust in Moscow, he said.

"It's not only a change in tone. It was a change in substance," he added. "The new agenda is much broader than ever."

Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.

President Obama tries to dispel Russian mistrust with speech on cooperation 07/07/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 7, 2009 11:39pm]

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