Obama kick-STARTs negotiations with Russia visit

This week, Barack Obama paid his very first visit to Moscow as president, and among other things the two sides agreed the outline of a new treaty to get rid of nuclear weapons, despite controversial US AMD shield plans.

Although it was an unseasonably gloomy welcome weather-wise – grey skies and exceptionally cold for July – the welcome in the Kremlin was much warmer.

“Even the weather is in favor of such interaction as ours – it’s quite chilly outside and it gives us a proper working mood,” Dmitry Medvedev said.

No visit is complete without photos, and of course Medvedev gave his counterpart an album of then-Senator Obama inspecting Russia’s nuclear sites. This time round it was again similar business, but in the centre-stage.

“We have signed a joint understanding for a follow-on treaty to the START agreement that will reduce our nuclear warheads and delivery systems by up to a third from our current treaty limitations,” Barack Obama said.

A new START nuclear arms reduction treaty needs to be finished by the end of the year. The draft envisages cuts of between 600 and 1,100 delivery vehicles and anything from 1,500 to 1,675 warheads.

Moscow wants to link arms cuts to US plans for an anti-missile shield system in Eastern Europe. Russia says this threatens its national security. Both sides still seem far apart.

“The document we’ve just signed makes a connection between defensive and offensive weapons. That is quite a step forward, because not long ago all we had in this matter was constant disagreement,” Medvedev said.

All the same, Obama seemed to have hit it off with Medvedev.

“There’s no mentoring, nobody tried to impose their position, and there was mutual understanding,” said Natalya Timakova, President Medvedev’s press attaché.

The shadow of the Bush legacy still looms over the White House – possibly that is why the global Obamamania has not struck a chord with Russia, but many saw his visit positively.

“With your name we associate our hope for a breakthrough in the relations between our countries,” Vladimir Putin said.

It was the face-off everyone wanted to see. Ahead of the visit Obama said Putin had one foot in the old ways of doing business and one in the new. Putin brushed it off, saying he didn’t know how to do the splits. And during this visit both leaders watched their footwork.

“We’ve got a message from a very good friend of mine who is traveling together with the White House pool. After the meeting they had a closed briefing for the White House traveling pool by a White House official and he told the journalists: ‘the President is now convinced that the Russian Prime Minister is a man of today and he has got his eyes firmly on the future.’ If it’s not the best result – what is?” said Dmitry Peskov, Prime Minister Putin’s press attaché.

Putin was eager to give a truly Russian welcome and the location set the right tone. Obama got a real taste of Russia. For breakfast they had smoked beluga, black caviar, dumplings and ice cream.

On a sunlit veranda set in a birch and pine forest they drank tea from a samovar kindled in the traditional way with a Russian boot. The menu for the talks, however, was a little harder to digest – but with no unexpected upsets.

What about meeting the Russian people? For this, Obama chose graduates from the New Economic School to deliver his trip’s keynote speech.

“In 2009, a great power does not show strength by dominating or demonizing other countries. The days when empires could treat sovereign states as pieces on a chessboard are over,” Barack Obama said.

Obama met with the country’s business elite, civil groups, those in power as well as those on the other side of political life – the Russian opposition. He brings home an agreement on military cargo transit to Afghanistan and some business deals – many already cooked up before his arrival.

However, some are still of the opinion that, despite Obama’s polished rhetoric, the details on progress are still vague:

“Yes, there aren’t really any results yet, but we are just at the beginning of the road,” Natalya Timakova concluded.