Guest from the West

Barack Obama is in Moscow on his first official visit to Russia as U.S. President for a summit with Dmitry Medvedev, and the weight of history is upon them.

The main focus will be on agreeing on a new arms reduction treaty to replace the current one, known as START, which expires in December.

Among the other issues to be discussed are American missile defense plans, NATO expansion and tackling regional conflicts.

Cautious optimism

Ahead of today's big meeting, Dmitry Medvedev had another one, this time with the Italian media.

The Russian President said he expected some real results to be achieved during Obama's visit, including a new treaty on strategic arms reduction.

“We are all cautiously optimistic – both the Russian and, I think, the American side. I hear what my counterpart, President Obama, is saying. The key issue of our meeting is the preparation of a new treaty on strategic arms reduction. But, in addition to disarmament issues, we have a broad range of other questions. These include regional and local conflicts, tackling the global financial crisis and, finally, bilateral relations,” Medvedev said.

“As for offensive nuclear arms, they are not a thing in itself. Their effectiveness depends on the means used to counter them, on missile defense. So I'm sure these two subjects are related – for obvious reasons,” he said.

Medvedev continued: “We have repeatedly stated that we are against the deployment of missile defense elements in Poland and the Czech Republic. These countries are on one continent, whereas Iran is on another one. I really cannot understand how you can say that this missile shield is related to the problems in the Middle East. Accordingly, I believe all these explanations were invented to justify the decisions the previous US administration made.”

“But while the previous US administration took a very uncompromising stance on the issue of missile defense, the current administration is ready to discuss it. All we need to do is show some restraint and the ability to compromise, and then we will be able to strike a deal,” the Russian president believes.

The current administration in Washington is easier to deal with than the previous one, according to Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister.

But Sergey Ryabkov told RT there are new realities which must be recognized if the two countries are to move forward.

“In many fields and respects from the START treaty down to co-operative issues of public health, global trade, global environment, climate change – everywhere we have a more attentive ear in Washington D.C. now, and we have by far more meaningful dialogue with them than we had with the previous administration,” said Ryabkov.

“I think there are also plenty of opportunities to cooperate also on the issues of how to strengthen stability and security in the Southern Caucasus. We do believe that the only prerequisite, if you wish, for meaningful progress in all respects is the recognition of the change of situation which is, after the tragic events of last year, we have the new reality of two new sovereign independent nations recognized by Russia. This reality has to be recognized if we are serious about, not just deadlocking things further, but trying to find ways of how to work cooperatively on issues,” Ryabkov asserted.

START again

Speaking about the talks on the strategic arms reduction treaty, or START-2, the most important issue on the agenda of Obama’s visit to Moscow, Obama said that he hoped for fruitful talks with President Medvedev.

The text of the document on strategic offensive weapons that the Russian and American presidents will sign has been already agreed, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Obama also said that that Russia could become a part of the anti-missile shield in Eastern Europe.

“We are not creating, and are not planning to create, a system to defend ourselves against Russia. I sincerely hope that Russia will be our partner in the missile defense project. If we unite our resources, we will enjoy greater security than if we act on our own,” Obama said.

He pointed out that resetting Russian-American relations should involve a mutual desire to strengthen democracy, human rights and justice.

Sparring over footwork

Speaking about his expectations for the visit, Barack Obama did not fail to put forth his expectations for the visit. Nor did he fail to deliver a jibe towards Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

“I have developed a very good relationship with President Medvedev, and I think we are going to get a very important business done by setting up a framework for a post-START treaty that will bring down the levels of nuclear warheads on both the Russian and US sides. But Prime Minister Putin still has a lot of sway in Russia, and I think it is important that even as we move forward with President Medvedev, that Putin understands that the old Cold War approaches to US-Russian relations is outdated. It is time to move forward in different directions, and I think Medvedev understands that. I think Putin has one foot in the old way of doing business and one foot in the new,” Obama said.

Putin's response was done in the sharp-tongued manner usual for the Prime Minister.

“We are not standing with one foot in the past and one in the future. We cannot be doing the splits. Instead, we are standing firmly on our feet and look into the future,” commented Putin.

Obama weighs-in on Khodorkovsky

President Obama also gave an interview to a Russian newspaper before leaving the U.S.

And the publication he chose, like Medvedev, was the liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

In this interview, the American President highly praised the efforts of his Russian counterpart to strengthen democratic freedom, particularly talking about the Russian judicial system. He emphasized that it should not be used to achieve political goals. In this respect, he touched on the cases of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, and the way they have been handled.

“It seems odd to me why those new charges, which look like repackaged old ones, should come up now, years after the two men [Khodorkovsky and Lebedev] were put in jail and when they have a chance of being pardoned,” stressed Obama.

According to a former Russian Ambassador to the U.S., Vladimir Lukin, US citizens care a lot about their own human rights, but are not so worried about the rights of non-Americans, either at home or abroad.

“I am an ombudsman for human rights in the Russian Federation, but if I were an ombudsman for human rights in America, I would find many cases of human rights violation there. Although I must say that citizens of the United States pay a great deal of attention to making sure the authorities don't violate their rights. If there is something that has to do with the non-American citizens – even if they are on the American territory, and especially so if they are outside the American borders – then interest to human rights violation significantly decreases. It leads to problems that we are aware of: Guantanamo and other prisons outside the USA using illegal methods in the course of inquires etc. They are well-known,” Lukin said.