By Michael A. Fletcher and Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
MOSCOW, July 7 -- President Obama called Tuesday for a new relationship between the United States and Russia, saying that the frequent rivals would both prosper by joining forces to combat common threats and pursue their mutual interests.
The modern scourges of stateless terrorism and nuclear proliferation threaten both the United States and Russia, Obama said, demanding that the two nations shed past suspicions and confront those problems as partners.
"There is the 20th-century view that the United States and Russia are destined to be antagonists and that a strong Russia or a strong America can only assert themselves in opposition to one another," Obama said in a speech to economics graduates. "And there is a 19th-century view that we are destined to vie for spheres of influence and that great powers must forge competing blocs to balance one another. These assumptions are wrong."
Obama's speech came on the final day of a summit here in which he met with Russian political leaders, business people, activists and dissidents as part of his effort to "reset" U.S. relations with Russia. In recent years, ties between the two nations hit what many analysts described as the worst point in more than two decades.
During his two-day visit, Obama reached accords with his Russian counterparts on a series of agreements covering such issues as nuclear disarmament and U.S. military shipments through Russian airspace, as well as on jointly assessing the threat posed by nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea.
At the same time, the two nations continue to disagree on major issues, including U.S. plans for a missile shield in Europe.
"I can't think of a summit that was so comprehensive in what we are trying to do as a government," said Michael McFaul, special assistant to the president and senior director for Russian and Eurasian affairs.
Yury Ushakov, a senior aide to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, told the Interfax news agency that Obama emphasized that "Russia and the United States could cooperate more intensively on Iran, that Russia's role is extremely important there and that America is interested in stronger cooperation."
Obama began Tuesday with a breakfast meeting with Putin, who is widely regarded as Russia's most powerful political leader. Aides said the session lasted more than two hours -- half an hour longer than scheduled -- and both men called it candid and open.
Just last week, Obama criticized Putin in an interview, saying he clings to a Cold War paradigm that Obama wants to leave behind.
"It went very well," Putin said later, at a signing ceremony for a $70 million joint venture between Boeing and a state-owned Russian firm to produce airline parts. "We covered the issues from previous years, and we defined things for the near future and middle term."
Delivering the commencement address at the New Economic School, Obama said the United States does not benefit from a weak Russia. "The pursuit of power is no longer a zero-sum game -- progress must be shared," he said.
Even as Obama called for greater cooperation with Russia, he raised issues that continue to be sources of friction between the two nations.
He said the United States is committed to "universal values," including freedom of speech, an independent press and competitive elections -- values that he said promote peace and stability. They are also values that many critics say Russia routinely violates.
Obama invoked his own example as the nation's first African American president.
"If our democracy did not advance those rights, I -- as a person of African ancestry -- wouldn't be able to address you as an American citizen, much less a president," he said.
Obama also said modern times require countries to respect the sovereignty of other countries. "That is true for Russia, just as it is true for the United States," he said. "Any system that cedes those rights will lead to anarchy. That is why this principle must apply to all nations -- including Georgia and Ukraine."
Russia has been irritated at the United States' support of the two former Soviet states, arguing that the countries lie within its geographical sphere of influence. Russia has also opposed the efforts of Georgia and Ukraine to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, saying their membership would bring the security alliance right to its border, which it views as a potential threat.
Obama rejected that view.
"For any country to become a member of NATO, a majority of its people must choose to; they must undertake reforms; and they must be able to contribute to the alliance's mission," Obama said. "And let me be clear: NATO seeks collaboration with Russia, not confrontation."
Sergei Rogov, director of the Institute for the U.S. and Canadian Studies, said Obama's visit was more successful than most in Russia had expected. Obama "made all the right sounds in a very respectful way" and did much to reduce mistrust in Moscow, he said.
"It's not only a change in tone. It was a change in substance," he added. "The new agenda is much broader than ever."