In the first sign that President Obama's decision to abandon a controversial Bush-era missile defense plan could end up improving relations with Moscow, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev appeared to demonstrate some new flexibility after meeting with Obama in New York on Wednesday.
Instead of simply ruling out the notion of tougher sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, which has long been a top priority for the Obama administration, Medvedev left the door open to such a punishment.
"Sanctions rarely lead to productive results, but in some cases are inevitable," he said at a joint news conference after the meeting. "We believe it is necessary to help Iran make the right decision."
Obama said that he remains committed to negotiating with Iran in "serious fashion," but he raised the option of "serious additional sanctions" on Iran. "What we've discussed is how we can move in a positive direction that can resolve a potential crisis," he added.
Moscow has long been reluctant to support any punitive measures that could jeopardize its strong commercial and diplomatic ties with Tehran.
But Wednesday's session on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meeting was the first time in years that talks between U.S. and Russian leaders was not dominated by Russian anger over U.S. plans to build a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe.
The Obama administration announced last week its decision to scrap an expensive, unproven missile shield system in favor of a smaller, tested defense system. Moscow has welcomed the shift on missile defense, signaling a thaw in a relationship that was downright chilly under the Bush administration.
Medvedev and Obama also spent a lot of time talking about arms control, which is a key Russian priority. Both countries are trying to reach a deal by the end of the year to reduce their massive Cold War nuclear arsenals.
The December deadline to agree to a new nuclear arms treaty has seemed increasingly unrealistic, but Medvedev said the talks are still on target. "The work is under way," he said. "A good start allowed us to hope that our teams will cope and in due time, we will have a document."
The Obama administration came into office pledging to "reset" America's relationship with Russia, and his first encounters with Medvedev have been notably warmer. But at some point, the U.S. president will want some more concrete accomplishments.
Neither leader announced any concrete breakthrough after the meeting, although few analysts had expected any.
"So far the readings are not encouraging," says Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute. "I fear Obama will be disappointed by the summit."
Still, Russia did signal that the missile defense move will change the tone of its relationship with Washington.
"The fact that they are listening to us is an obvious signal that we should also attentively listen to our partners, our American partners," Medvedev told Swiss media ahead of his meeting with Obama.
The missile defense shift may make Moscow a bit more flexible on some issues, but Obama has insisted that his decision to abandon the Bush-era version of missile defense was not aimed at placating Russia.
"We have made a decision about what will be best to protect the American people, as well as our troops in Europe and our allies," Obama told CBS's Face the Nation on Sunday. "If the byproduct of it is that the Russians feel a little less paranoid, and are now willing to work more effectively with us to deal with threats like ballistic missiles from Iran or the nuclear development in Iran, you know, then that's a bonus."
At the very least, the decision did remove a serious obstacle to improved cooperation. "The United States gave Russia something it really, really, really, really wanted," Aron says. "Now, the moment of truth is coming."
For several years, Russian officials have used their opposition to Bush's missile defense plans as their prime excuse for not supporting a number of different U.S. initiatives.
"The reality is this was an issue which I believed was used by many on the Russian side who did not want to see any particular reset in the relationship," says James Collins, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia who is now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "It has weakened their hand, and it has strengthened the hands of those who want to have a better and more pragmatic approach to the Americans, simply by removing the issue."
But Russia's opposition to tougher sanctions on Iran, for instance, was always based on a wider set of calculations, including its own relationship with Tehran.
"Anyone who thinks that because we did the missile defense thing, the Russians will suddenly say we can do anything you want on Iran, is wrong," Collins says. "That's a tough issue, and I don't think it's moved a lot."
More broadly, Obama is trying to pursue a new level of openness toward Moscow, hoping to determine what kind of role Moscow wants to play on the world stage.
"People in Russia do see him as opening up opportunities to explore new ways to do business," Collins says. "He is challenging them to play a responsible role as a stakeholder in the international system, and they are a bit unsure of how to deal with that."