Obama Sets Out For New Russian Relationship

President Barack Obama sets off for Moscow Sunday for meetings with President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The Obama administration says it is anxious to develop a new relationship with Russia and press the "reset" button after difficult relations between Washington and Moscow under President Bush.

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President Obama sets off on another foreign trip today, this time to Russia, Italy and Ghana. In Moscow, he's hoping to get over a period of rocky relations and tackle issues with Russia in a more pragmatic way - and that begins with negotiating nuclear arms cuts.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: The Obama administration and Dmitry Medvedev's Kremlin have pledged to reset relations, so now what?

Mr. SAMUEL CHARAP (Center for American Progress): The summit will be the real test for the reset button. It will show whether the administration can move from atmospherics to deliverables.

KELEMEN: That's Samuel Charap of the Center for American Progress, one of the many Washington think tanks offering advice to President Obama on how to manage relations with Moscow. Most are saying that working on arms control and other security issues, as the U.S. is doing now, is a good way to build up trust, which is badly needed, according to former defense secretary William Cohen.

Former Secretary WILLIAM COHEN (Department of Defense): There is great distrust toward the United States. They look at what we have done since the fall of the Berlin Wall, since the collapse of the empire, with the expansion of NATO itself. And they look with great suspicion and doubt and it's almost the Rodney Dangerfield mentality that they have felt over the years, that they can't get no respect, and they resent that deeply.

KELEMEN: But negotiating cuts in nuclear arsenals isn't just an attempt to get the Russians back in their comfort zone. There is a deadline involved. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty expires later this year, so both sides are working against that deadline to negotiate a follow-on treaty.

The Russians also want to see the U.S. back off from plans to deploy missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic. The Obama administration is reviewing U.S. missile defense plans, though officials here say there won't be any horse trading. And Cohen, who was President Clinton's defense secretary, agrees.

Sec. COHEN: This is not just our choice, how we think we're going to deal with Russia. Russia has to be willing to deal with us on a mutually beneficial basis. And we're not going to give up something simply for the sake of trying to help the Russians. We're going to say, here are common interests, can't we work together? And if we can work together on these, perhaps we can work out something on the ones we disagree.

KELEMEN: That's just the sort of message President Obama plans to give, according to his top advisor on Russia, Michael McFaul. In a telephone conference, McFaul was quick to point out that the president isn't only going to Moscow to deal with security issues.

Mr. MICHAEL MCFAUL (Advisor, Russia): This is not 1974. This is not just where we go over and we do an arms control agreement with the Soviets, but that we have a multidimensional relationship with the Russian government and with the Russian people.

KELEMEN: So that's why President Obama is not only meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev and separately with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, he's also planning to meet with civil society groups and address business leaders, many of whom are angry with Putin's latest move to pull back from Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization. Analysts say that's a sign that Russia doesn't want to be part of a rules-based market. Before leaving on the trip, President Obama told the Associated Press that Putin has one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new.

President BARACK OBAMA: 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.

KELEMEN: President Obama praised Russia for its help in trying to persuade North Korea to disarm, and he's hopeful that Moscow can help on Iran, Afghanistan and many other issues as well, if he can manage to forge the kind of pragmatic relationship he's seeking. Analysts here say he should have no illusions.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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