Barack Obama's Pragmatic First Meeting With Dmitry Medvedev

Thursday, April 2, 2009

THE HEADLINE news from Europe yesterday was President Obama's meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, which Mr. Obama said produced "great progress" in several areas, including an agreement to quickly negotiate a new nuclear arms treaty. That step was certainly welcome, as were the slight indications of greater U.S.-Russian agreement on the nuclear threats of North Korea and Iran, and the need to confront the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But one other, less heralded piece of news needs to be added to the upbeat reports from London if what Mr. Obama called "the beginning of new progress in U.S.-Russian relations" is to be properly assessed. That is the attack on one of Russia's foremost human rights activists, Lev Ponomarev, who was brutally beaten by a group of men outside his home in Moscow on Tuesday night, just hours before the Obama-Medvedev meeting. It was the latest in a series of brazen and unpunished assaults on opponents of the regime Mr. Medevev represents -- and its timing was almost certainly not accidental. "It was an ordered attack," Mr. Ponomarev told The Post's Phillip P. Pan yesterday. "It's connected with my human rights activities."

Mr. Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have inflated ambitions; as Mr. Medvedev suggested in an op-ed published in The Post this week, they imagine the Russian-U.S. relationship as a locus for management of the world's problems. In fact, Moscow manifestly lacks the economic, military or diplomatic clout to play such a role, but arms control is one area where the interests of both nations can be furthered by bilateral engagement. While it remains to be seen whether a new nuclear accord can be reached on the tight timetable set by the two presidents, Mr. Obama was right to focus on that opportunity -- and also to offer the prospect of greater economic cooperation.

Still, the new administration appears to recognize the likely pitfalls and limits of doing business with the Putin-Medvedev regime. U.S. officials briefing reporters yesterday were cautious in describing Mr. Medvedev's response to U.S. concerns about the Iranian nuclear program. "I don't think we want to suggest that somehow they're in agreement," said one. They emphasized that, unlike President George W. Bush -- who gushed that he had glimpsed Mr. Putin's soul during their first meeting -- Mr. Obama is not seeking to develop a personal relationship with the Russian leaders but rather one focused on concrete interests.

Appropriately, Mr. Obama directly raised central U.S. concerns about Russia, his aides said, including its attempt to dominate the states around it -- and its worsening human rights record. The attack on Mr. Ponomarev "came up in the conversation," said one official, as well it should have. Mr. Obama is right to pragmatically pursue arms control agreements with Russia and to seek its cooperation on Iran and counterterrorism. But he must also make clear to the Kremlin that collaboration in those areas will never mean consent for Russian autocracy or neo-imperialism, and that as long as those policies persist, the regime's fantasy of a global partnership with the United States will remain just that.

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