Russia, United States seek new start in sagging relationship

MOSCOW — Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev end a seven-year hiatus in U.S.-Russian summitry today, with each declaring his determination to further cut nuclear arsenals and repair a badly damaged relationship.

Both sides appear to want to use progress on arms control as a path to possible agreement on trickier issues, including Iran and Georgia, the former Soviet republic. Those difficulties and others have soured what was a promising linkage in the first years after the Cold War and strained ties between Moscow and Washington to points unseen in more than two decades.

Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters, Malia and Sasha, left Andrews Air Force Base aboard Air Force One on Sunday evening.

A White House official told reporters Sunday the presidents expect to announce progress on negotiations that could lead to a treaty to replace the START I agreement, which expires Dec. 5.

More broadly, the United States wants to use the summit to overhaul the U.S.-Russian relationship.

"It's not, in our view, a zero-sum game, that if it's two points for Russia, it's negative two for us," Obama's top assistant on Russia, Michael McFaul, said in a presummit briefing. "But there are ways that we can cooperate to advance our interests and, at the same time, do things with the Russians that are good for them as well."

Medvedev said in an Internet address that the powers "need new, common, mutually beneficial projects in business, science and culture."

"I hope that this sincere desire to open a new chapter in Russian-American cooperation will be brought into fruition," he said.

Two things appear certain:

• The Russians have said they will agree to allow the United States to use their territory and air space to move munitions and arms to U.S. and NATO forces fighting Taliban Islamic extremists in Afghanistan. The Kremlin announced the deal days before the summit as a sweetener for Obama.

• A directive for negotiators to work toward a START I replacement. The sides agreed in principle to cut warheads from more than 2,000 each to as few as 1,500.

Those deals could be announced at an Obama-Medvedev news conference this afternoon after the leaders' scheduled four-hour meeting.

An apparent hardening has occurred on both sides over a proposed U.S. missile defense shield in Eastern Europe. Those differences could stall or even preclude an agreement on strategic nuclear warheads. That could kill the hoped-for extension of those talks next year to include cuts in delivery vehicles: long-range missiles, submarines and bombers.

Friday, Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Vladimir Putin, the current prime minister and former president, said the Kremlin would not negotiate a replacement to START I unless Obama clarified plans for the defense system to be based in Poland and the Czech Republic.

The United States contends the system is designed to protect U.S. allies in Europe from a potential nuclear attack by Iran. The Russians see it as a way of weakening the offensive nuclear strike potential that is arrayed against the U.S. arsenal. Obama has been cool to the program, which former President George W. Bush pushed hard.

The White House said Sunday that if an agreement comes too late for Senate ratification by Dec. 5, it would look for ways to enforce some aspects on an executive level while waiting for ratification.

Obama's trip schedule include an hourlong meeting with Putin on Tuesday. Protocol does not demand he visit the prime minister.

"Prime Minister Putin still has a lot of sway in Russia, and I think that it's important that even as we move forward with President Medvedev, that Putin understands that the old Cold War approaches to U.S.-Russian relations is outdated, that it's time to move forward in a different direction," Obama said Thursday.

Most analysts see Putin as still holding the real reins of power in Russia.

Obama said in the interview, "I think Putin has one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new."

Putin responded quickly.

"We don't know how to stand so awkwardly with our legs apart," he said in televised remarks.

"We stand solidly on our own two feet and always look into the future."

Russia, United States seek new start in sagging relationship 07/05/09 [Last modified: Monday, July 6, 2009 8:11am]

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