Russia, Obama seek new page in ties

7th July 2009, Comments 0 comments

A joint declaration on replacing a key disarmament treaty is expected to be a centrepiece of Obama's two-day visit, along with a deal allowing US military supplies destined for Afghanistan to transit across Russia.

Moscow -- US President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev held talks Monday seeking to turn a new page in relations scarred by a series of disputes between the ex-Cold War foes.

A joint declaration on replacing a key disarmament treaty is expected to be a centrepiece of Obama's two-day visit, along with a deal allowing US military supplies destined for Afghanistan to transit across Russia.

"We hope ... all our bilateral discussions we will close a number of difficult pages in the history of US-Russian relations and open a new page," Medvedev told Obama at the start of their talks in the Kremlin.

Obama added: "If we work hard during these next few days then we will make extraordinary progress that will benefit the people of both countries."

"We are confident that on a whole host of issues...that the United States and Russia have more in common than they have differences," Obama said.

Making his first visit to Russia as president, Obama earlier stepped off Air Force One into an unseasonably cold Moscow accompanied by his two daughters and wife Michelle whose pink dress offered little protection from hostile weather.

In a bid to present a relaxed atmosphere, Medvedev quipped that the poor weather would encourage the two sides to stay indoors.

Both sides have repeatedly used the slogan of pressing "the reset button" to lift a relationship that sank to a post-Cold War low under the presidency of George W. Bush amid a series of rows capped by Russia's war with Georgia.

But Obama's visit, which will also include meetings with opposition figures and a keynote speech to a progressive economics university, is not expected to be completely smooth.

"A complete reset and partnership is being blocked by disagreements on the main questions," said the Kommersant daily.

The Interfax news agency reported Monday that the two sides had at the last minute agreed the final text of a framework document on the replacement of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), to be signed by the two presidents.

Just one day earlier, the agency reported that negotiators had still not agreed the framework document on replacing START, a 1991 treaty imposing strict limits on nuclear arms, which expires in December.

Officials have stressed the two sides are still some distance from a new treaty and that the declaration will set guidelines for negotiators to complete their work by the end of the year and, possibly, numerical targets for cuts.

"There certainly won't be an agreement on the end deal ... but I think you will see an announcement that indicates some progress toward reaching that objective," White House arms control specialist Gary Samore said Sunday.

The US president showed he was unafraid of blunt talking on Russia when he said in a pre-visit interview that Medvedev's predecessor, strongman Prime Minister Vladimir Putin still had "one foot" in the past.

The remark set off speculation in the Russian press Obama was seeking to strengthen the youthful Medvedev over Putin. Obama is due to meet Putin for breakfast on Tuesday.

Obama also gave an interview to the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, a publication that has been a constant thorn in the Kremlin's side and was the employer of the murdered Putin critic Anna Politkovskaya.

He described as "odd" Russia's decision to launch a second trial against jailed Russian billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a comment hardly likely to gladden his hosts.

A major sticking point in talks will likely be a US plan to install missile defence facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic, an initiative Russia says threatens its security.

The Russian edition of Newsweek said Washington was particularly irked by Moscow's dismissal of the political crisis in Iran as an internal matter and its decision to apply for WTO membership as a regional trade bloc.

"It doesn't smell like a reset. Nothing has remained of the great expectations of the Moscow summit," Newsweek wrote.

"Ahead into the future or back to the USSR?" asked the opposition New Times.

Nevertheless, US officials expect a major boost for their operations in Afghanistan with an agreement for the United States to transport troops and weaponry across Russian territory and airspace.

Previously, Washington has only been allowed to transport non-lethal supplies by rail. The new deal should allow the United States to transport military supplies across Russia by air.

Anna Smolchenko/AFP/Expatica

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