Obama & Medvedev find middle ground in London

The first ever eye-to-eye meeting between Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama has shown there are signs of thawing in Russia-US relations and that the two states are ready to “push the reset button”.

The leaders have agreed to immediately start work on a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in order to sign it by the end the year.

It would replace the 1991 treaty, which resulted in the largest ever bilateral cuts in nuclear weapons. That treaty is due to expire on December 5, 2009.

The meeting between the Russian and American presidents took place on the eve of the G20 summit in London and was undoubtedly one of the most anticipated of the many bilateral talks scheduled.

Medvedev said: “I agree that in recent years our relations grew more difficult. To a certain extent they were drifting, just like the President said right now, in the wrong direction. The relations were degrading. And it was not to the benefit of the USA or Russia, or for the world situation. We’ve agreed that we’ll do our best to restart these relations, to start a new page.”

After the 90-minute meeting at Whitfield House, the US embassy residence, the Russian President said the leaders discussed “almost all the issues important to us, including the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, reducing strategic arms, cooperation in counter-terrorism and restoring global financial stability”.

“This is just the beginning of our talks, but we understand we have much more in common than that which separates us. I agree with President Obama that our teams did a good job in a number of declarations and in reshaping the general frameworks of our relations,” he said.

The presidents issued a joint statement following their meeting which said they were ready to move beyond the Cold War mentality and take relations between the two countries to a new level. However, disagreements remain.

For instance, last year’s conflict in the Caucasus when Georgia attacked South Ossetia was brought up at the meeting. The two leaders disagree “about the causes and sequence of the military actions of last August” but agreed that they must continue “efforts toward a peaceful and lasting solution to the unstable situation today.”

A stumbling block in Russia-U.S. relations – Washington’s plans to deploy its missile defence shield in Europe – was also touched upon. The two sides, according to the statement, acknowledge that differences remain over the purposes of deployment of missile defense assets. The presidents, however, “discussed new possibilities for mutual international cooperation in the field of missile defense…”.

The US said both sides should speed up work to make sure that Russia joins the World Trade Organization as soon as possible. This can be seen as a very positive sign for the Kremlin, as Moscow has been trying to negotiate the terms of entry to the WTO since the early 1990s.

I'll learn Russian – Obama

Barack Obama accepted Dmitry Medvedev’s invitation to visit Moscow in July this year, noting that would be “Better than in January.”

“I will be glad to see the President and members of his team in Russia in July this year. It is really the warmest month in Russia. I hope it will reflect the character of the conversations we’ll have then,” Medvedev said.

The presidents had no time to answer journalists’ questions. However, Barack Obama thanked the ITAR-TASS correspondent for a question on the general atmosphere of the meeting and whether the two presidents were joking today, on April Fools’ Day. He said ‘spasibo’, which means “thank you” in Russian. And added in English: “I promise I’ll learn Russian”.

Queen hosts leaders ahead of tough talks

The G20 summit begins on Thursday. However, before the heads of state attempt to try to resolve the global crisis, world leaders have gathered for a Royal dinner as Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II has received guests at Buckingham Palace.

One family, however, was honoured with a private audience with the Queen. Barak Obama and his wife Michelle had tea with the Queen during a 20-minute meeting.

According to reports, the U.S. first lady was briefed on the particulars of royal etiquette by the State Department and White House officials prior to the meeting.

Concerning the menu, the dinner itself will take place at Downing Street and a special menu will be served by British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, best known for his TV cooking shows.

The leaders have opposing views on how to tackle the credit crisis: some favour economic stimulus while others favour economic regulation. In any case there is, so far, no consensus on what to do.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, playing host to these talks, is very optimistic about what they can achieve.

"We are within a few hours of agreeing on a global plan for economic recovery and reform," the prime minister said.

“Financial fools”

However, the leaders are already targets for public ridicule and demonstrations on London’s streets as protesters, using the April Fools’ day theme, labelled the gathering “Financial fools”.

Also, fears continue that this event will go down in history for the street protests and the disagreements among the participants.

Expert opinions

Charles Kupchan from the Council on Foreign Relations believes the US will not be able to act unilaterally any more as the world needs joint decisions:

“I think Obama has a difficult balancing act in the sense that he clearly needs to be in listening mode. He needs to be more of a team player than George W. Bush was, because Bush paid a price for being too unilateralist. At the same time, the US remains the wealthiest country in the world, powered with the most military. So the key here is to find a good balance between the US trying to take the lead to push for a consensus, yet at the same time make sure it provides sufficient room for the interest of other major powers.”

Martha Olcott, from the Carnegie Foundation, believes the strategic arms reduction deal could be the first success of renewed relations between Russia and the US.

“I think that the economic crisis really does provide an opportunity for resetting the US- Russian relationship, creating an opportunity for both states when their confronting greater economic crisis at home to begin to find a common language to talk about shared concern abroad. Certainly the meeting reiterated how both sides are eager to find a successful treaty for strategic arms reduction. That’s likely to be the first big success in a restarted US-Russia relationship. That in itself will create an important building block for a more long-term thawing of relations between the two sides.”

Yury Rogulev, from the Roosevelt Foundation for United States Studies, believes any progress on a new arms reduction deal could be scuppered by US plans to install a missile shield in Eastern Europe.

“It is useless to talk about limits on the strategic arms at the same time as another country is building up an anti-nuclear missile defense system, because these issues are very much connected. That was the understanding of the old agreements between the US and the USSR back at the end of the 20th century. There was an understanding that it is impossible to stop the arms race if you create some kind of defense system at the same time.”