MOSCOW — On the eve of his first visit to Russia since taking office, President Barack Obama accused Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of having “one foot” in the Cold War.
That’s something many people might think, but it’s not something that’s often said.
“It’s important that even as we move forward with President Dmitry Medvedev that Putin understand that the old Cold War approaches to U.S.-Russian relations is outdated — that it’s time to move forward in a different direction,” Obama told The Associated Press in an interview.
“I think Medvedev understands that,” he said. “I think Putin has one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new.”
Obama’s blunt and provocative comments are the clearest indication yet that his July 6-8 visit to Moscow will be the latest stop in a tour to reshape U.S. policy, rather than just diplomatic theater.
There is a lot at stake. U.S.-Russian relations have spiraled to a post-Cold War low, and a question that many thought dead has once again entered the dialogue — are Washington and Moscow doomed to antagonism because of a fundamentally opposed worldview?
“In general, the U.S. and Russia don’t have a clear idea of what they need from each other in the 21st century,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs.
There have been some positive signs ahead of Obama’s visit to Moscow. Yet few analysts here are taking the view, promoted in the U.S., that we stand on the brink of a fundamental “reset” of relations.
“I would not expect miracles,” said Vyacheslav Nikonov, a Kremlin-connected political analyst. “Besides the reset, which presupposes the possibility of quick fixes, we need an upgrading of the computer.”
The U.S. is hoping that progress on two fronts — Afghanistan and nuclear arms reductions — can launch a wider dialogue.
Last week, the U.S. won the right to continue using the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan, an important base for the war in nearby Afghanistan. Russia was believed to behind the Central Asian nation’s decision to evict U.S. troops, and its approval was sought when the U.S. and Kyrgyzstan announced the move’s surprise reversal.
“The whole story about kicking the Americans out from Manas was an important demonstration for Russia to show who is in charge, who is the boss in that region,” Lukyanov said.
Secondly, a renewed push has been given to talks to negotiate a successor to START, a key Cold War-era treaty governing nuclear stockpiles that is due to expire in December.
Just as Obama’s Cairo speech laid out the president’s views of the Middle East, so pundits here are hoping this visit will lay out the U.S. view of Russia. Many are still smarting from a 1990s in which Russia felt it was ignored, and a Bush era during which it felt outright dismissed.
Despite lingering suspicions of U.S. motives, the view of Obama is overwhelmingly positive. Even Nikonov, an analyst whose loyalty to the Kremlin is matched by mistrust of Washington, had kind words. “Obama looks like he is trying to improve America’s relations and image across the globe, so he might be interested in engaging,” he said.
Yet beyond arms control and Afghanistan, common points of interest are few and the potential for friction great.
I asked Nikonov, who happens to be the grandson of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, if he thought Russia and the U.S. could reach a common view of the world. “I don’t think so,” he said. “America still has a very unipolar view of the world. It sees America as No. 1 and leading. That’s not the Russian view of thinking of the globe.”
The globe may be a large thing to look at. Russia’s concerns fall to its immediate neighborhood.
When Obama arrives on Monday, Russia will have just wrapped up major war games in the North Caucasus, near the border with Georgia, which are seen as a signal to both Tbilisi and Washington, and a direct response to NATO war games held in Georgia in May.
Russian officials have indicated that they will not lift their opposition to NATO and EU membership for Ukraine and Georgia, two ex-Soviet countries that have become the main sites of a U.S.-Russian tug-of-war for influence.
“NATO is a problem. It’s currently seen as, factually and practically, an anti-Russian organization,” said Gleb Pavlovsky, a Kremlin analyst and adviser.
The view is widely held here that the U.S. helped orchestrate the so-called “color revolutions” that ushered Western-leaning governments into power in both Kiev and Tbilisi. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin went so far as to blame the U.S. for Russia’s war with Georgia last August, telling CNN in a subsequent interview that “the suspicion arises that someone in the United States especially created this conflict with the aim of making the situation more tense and creating a competitive advantage for one of the candidates fighting for the post of U.S. president.”
Indeed, U.S. bashing is a popular exercise in Moscow, where it serves as a particularly useful rhetorical device as the country plunges into its first recession in a decade.
Moscow has used the crisis to push for more influence in the region. It has begun touting the ruble as a regional reserve currency, urging neighbors to forgo the dollar. Its move to give up on 16 years of tough negotiations to join the World Trade Organization in favor of a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan is another example.
The question then becomes: Is the Obama administration content to see that happen?
Several Russian intellectuals have taken to the op-ed pages of global newspapers in recent weeks, calling for Obama to take a stand on diminishing human rights and freedoms inside the country.
The family of Pavel Klebnikov, the American editor of Russian Forbes who was gunned down in Moscow in 2004, has asked Obama to urge Medvedev and Putin to bring the killers to justice.
Obama will have to walk a fine line.
“For some reason, Russia is the only place on Earth where American leaders tend to mention these things,” Nikonov said. “If he wants to annoy Medvedev and Putin then he may bring it up.”
“[The Obama administration] understands that American interference or American attempts to put all those human rights and democracy questions on the agenda will not change anything in Russia,” said Lukyanov. “It is very calculated and pragmatic. They know what they need from Russia. It’s not much, but it’s something.”
That something will likely include attempts at cooperation over nuclear programs in North Korea as well as Iran, where the issue has been further complicated by the country’s post-election turmoil.
“Iran is a neighbor with which Russia should not ruin relations without serious reason,” Pavlovsky said. “If Russia follows mechanically behind America it will ruin relations with Iran.”
For now, Moscow is waiting with bated breath. Obama is due to meet both Medvedev and Putin, as well as to give a commencement speech at Moscow’s New Economic School.
Many predict Obama and Medvedev, who first met at the G20 meeting in London earlier this year, will at least be able to get along on a personal level, both being young lawyers.
“They will get along, without the sentimental religiosity of Bush, without this talk of soul and eyes, but because both Obama and Medvedev are cold intellectuals. They will understand each other and find a common language,” Pavlovsky said.
Former president George W. Bush famously said he expected good relations with Russia because upon meeting then-President Putin, he stared into his eyes and saw his soul.
How Putin will respond to Obama is anbody’s guess, and the relationship between those two men is arguably more important, considering that Putin remains the country’s preeminent power.
Obama’s comments to AP on Thursday could also indicate a new U.S. push to bolster Medvedev, believed to be more liberal, at the expense of Putin.
“[The visit] is symbolic, but in the current situation that means it’s also significant,” Lukyanov said. “It’s important to demonstrate that the U.S. and Russia are able to talk and compromise. But that’s not a framework for future relations, and so far there is no understanding — neither in Russia nor in the U.S. — about our mutual interests in 5, 10, 20 years to come.”