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Analysis & Opinion
26.03.09 The Presidents’ First Date
By Sergei Balashov

The much anticipated leadership changes in Russia and in the United States have begun bearing the first fruit. Both presidents have unequivocally stated that they would seek a new start in bilateral relations, and previous tensions have eased. The mutual criticism that used to be the driving force in the relationship has been toned down. Thus it is not surprising that the Russian authorities expect Dmitry Medvedev’s first meeting with Barack Obama, which will take place during the upcoming G20 summit in London, to be extremely productive. But are the Americans prepared to reciprocate?

The new course in U.S.-Russian relations has been dubbed the “reset mode.” Both countries seem to take this term literally, and the opportunity for palpable changes is now as good as ever. “[After the end of the Cold War] the world had a unique chance to create a brand new structure of international cooperation, and Russia was ready for that. They could push the reset button 20 years ago. It didn’t happen, and the world has had to wait until the present moment. Now, when there is a new man in charge in the United States with a completely different mindset, the world gets another shot at it. It could be taken advantage of, or it could be squandered,” said the Chairman of the International Affairs Committee of the State Duma Konstantin Kosachev at a press conference this week.

The upcoming meeting between Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama at the London G20 summit is expected to help figure out how the two countries will proceed. The global financial crisis will be dominating the agenda in London, but the conversation between Medvedev and Obama could touch on other subjects as well. There are a few pressing issues that need immediate attention and that are important for both Russia and the United States. Russia’s concern about the American anti-missile defense systems in Eastern Europe is one, while the United States needs Russia’s cooperation to put some pressure on Iran, a key Russian ally in the Middle East. Iran has been engaged in a major conflict with the United States that has been escalating over the past few years, with the possibility of an armed conflict now a reality.

The two countries also need to come to terms on a new nuclear arms control treaty to replace the expiring START I. According to some reports, this could become the central issue of the first meeting between the two presidents, which is already being dubbed “historic” in Russia.

But even though all of these issues are expected to be broached, the format of the meeting hardly allows for any extensive negotiations, and thus a breakthrough is unlikely. “The proclamation of a new start has been more of a declaration of intentions, and will most likely take shape in the next couple of months. We’ll see whether there will be real changes, a breakthrough [in bilateral relations] or a failure during either Obama’s expected visit to Russia in spring or Medvedev’s trip to the United States,” said Irina Tsurina, the head of the analytical department at the PRopaganda communication technologies center.

Thus this meeting looks more like a first date, where the presidents will just get acquainted, then a place for productive discussion. “There are serious transformations taking place in the United States right now, and the Russians are trying to understand where and how far they are prepared to go. I think even Obama doesn’t quite understand it himself,” said Tsurina.

Obama has signaled his preparedness to negotiate on anti-missile defense, while Russia has granted NATO a passage through its territory for supplies to be taken to Afghanistan, a key battlefield in America’s war on international terrorism.

Obama sent a confidential letter to Medvedev in February that was made public earlier this month. He reportedly offered to negotiate on anti-missile defense in Europe and wanted to get Russia to help out with restraining Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The proposed swap that was reported by the New York Times was later refuted by Obama himself, who said that no such offers had been made. Medvedev called the letter a “positive signal,” but Russians seemed to be looking for something more specific.

This week, Obama received a signal that he’s expected to come up with something concrete at the presidents’ first meeting in London. The Russian Security Council, chaired by Dmitry Medvedev, was set to pass the concept of Russia’s national security strategy until 2020 this week. However, it was postponed by a month to “allow more time to fix technical discrepancies.”

The Kommersant newspaper spoke to the head of the economics institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences Ruslan Grinberg, who is involved in the development of this concept. He said that more time was needed for the United States to define the reset in bilateral relations, and some clarification was expected from Obama’s conversation with Medvedev. Now, the confirmation session is set for late April, a few weeks after Medvedev sits down with Obama.

But despite all this, it is now clear that there will be a new direction in the U.S. foreign policy, and Russia will indeed be viewed in a slightly different light. Immediate cooperation on pressing issues is necessary, but Obama’s relaxed attitude toward Russia could be explained by his desire to put it on the backburner to make room for other, more important foreign policy concerns. “China is the big deal for the United States right now. We are fading into the background. We just don’t know how far back we’re going to be pushed. But it’s clear that we will be neither a major partner nor a major headache in the foreseeable future. They are looking to calm it down and keep it that way, or simply freeze it,” said Tsurina.
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