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Russia Presents Test for Obama

By Michael A. Fletcher and Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 5, 2009

President Obama is scheduled to leave Washington tonight on a week-long trip that will help determine whether his personal popularity and fresh policy approaches can yield concrete results on difficult issues including arms control, missile defense and nuclear nonproliferation.

After seeking support for U.S. policies from allies in Europe and appealing for a new relationship with the Muslim world in Cairo on previous trips, Obama arrives in Moscow tomorrow for his first foray into high-profile, nuts-and-bolts negotiations with the leader of a nation that might be deemed an unfriendly rival.

On Wednesday, Obama will travel to L'Aquila, Italy, where he will meet with leaders of the world's major industrial powers. Climate change and the continued shaky global economy are expected to dominate the agenda. He is also to meet with Pope Benedict XVI.

On Friday, Obama will go to Ghana, where he is expected to highlight that nation's burgeoning democratic tradition and to deliver a speech on his administration's goals for the developing world.

Shortly after taking office, the Obama administration made clear that it wants to "reset" relations between the United States and Russia, which had deteriorated under President George W. Bush. During Obama's first meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, in London in April, the two agreed to a broad statement of cooperation on numerous issues.

Both the White House and the Kremlin hope to build on that with a summit in Moscow, and agreements on subjects including Afghanistan and nuclear proliferation are expected to be unveiled. But fundamental differences remain on key issues that have strained U.S.-Russian relations.

Medvedev wants U.S. pledges to scrap a missile defense system in Eastern Europe and to rule out military alliances with the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine. Obama wants Russia to back tough sanctions against Iran if diplomatic efforts to curb its nuclear program fail. Neither president has indicated any willingness to yield.

"We're not going to reassure or give or trade anything with the Russians regarding NATO expansion or missile defense," said Michael McFaul, special assistant to the president and senior director for Russian and Eurasian affairs. "We're going to define our national interests, and by that I also mean the interests of our allies in Europe with reference to these two particular questions."

Sergei Prikhodko, Medvedev's chief foreign policy adviser, struck a similar tone. "Saying that it will be easy to move forward would mean deluding ourselves," he told reporters. "The domestic agendas of both leaders and their agendas in dealings with allies do not always coincide. Sometimes, they contradict each other directly or indirectly. But the question is . . . whether we want to expand mutual understanding or focus on defending our own positions on sensitive issues."

Obama is scheduled to meet on Tuesday with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, whom analysts called the preeminent power in Russian politics. Obama told the Associated Press last week that the former Russian president must move beyond a Cold War approach to relations with the United States.

The willingness of Obama and Medvedev to compromise will be tested when they discuss a treaty to replace the landmark START I nuclear arms control pact, which expires in December.

The United States and Russia control more than 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons. After three months of talks, negotiators have agreed to modest reductions below the limits of 1,700 to 2,200 warheads established by the 2002 Treaty of Moscow. But they remain deadlocked on how to count and limit the number of "delivery systems," or missiles and heavy bombers, that each nation can keep.

Medvedev publicly declared two weeks ago that no treaty is possible unless "the United States lifts Russia's concerns" about its plans to build a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Obama has not decided what to do about the system, said a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to discuss internal deliberations publicly.

The United States is reviewing other options for missile defense and has tried unsuccessfully to engage the Kremlin on the issue, he said. "We're serious about cooperation on missile defense with the Russians," he said. "But the sense is the Russians are still nervous and don't trust us."

Russian officials have publicly endorsed the idea of cooperation on missile defense, but have called on Obama to abandon the Polish-Czech plan first and emphasized they want to be included from the ground up, beginning with joint assessment of threats. The two sides have discussed opening a Moscow-based joint data exchange center.

Obama hopes to gain Russian cooperation on other topics, including energy efficiency and climate change. Russia is one of the world's largest energy producers, but it is also a leading emitter of greenhouse gases, behind the United States and China, according to the Center for American Progress.

The summit is expected to produce a deal allowing the United States to ship weapons to Afghanistan through Russia. The two sides may also agree to share intelligence and fight Afghanistan drug trafficking. Officials said the sides are also working to revive a pact on civilian nuclear energy cooperation that the Bush administration suspended after Russia's war last year with Georgia, and to strengthen military ties, also downgraded after the war.

Some business deals, including one involving Boeing, are also expected, analysts said, but they could be overshadowed by disappointment over Putin's decision to withdraw Russia's application for World Trade Organization membership last month.

Obama also is scheduled to deliver a speech in Moscow in which aides say he will try to dispel the feeling in Russia that America's self-interest lies in a weak Russia.

"This is not 1974. This is not just where we go do an arms control agreement with the Soviets, but that we have a multidimensional relationship with the Russian government and with the Russian people," McFaul said.

Pan reported from Moscow. Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan contributed to this report.

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