Arms Reduction Deal Obama Strikes Right Chord in Russia

US President Barack Obama is taking pains to massage Russian egos during his visit to Moscow. The charismatic US leader is trying not to overshadow his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev -- even if he is also meeting with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

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Although Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was technically the host, it was his US counterpart, Barack Obama, who appeared to be stage-managing the show Monday during the meeting between the two heads of state in a lavish Kremlin hall. The US president -- who, as usual, knew that not just America but the whole world was listening to his words -- was intentionally subdued. Obama spoke with concentration, sounding serious, and was always careful to make sure that his presence did not overshadow the somewhat tense-seeming Medvedev.

Obama is taking pains not to overshadow Medvedev during his Moscow visit.
REUTERS

Obama is taking pains not to overshadow Medvedev during his Moscow visit.

While the chiefs of staff of the two countries signed a military cooperation agreement, Obama touched the Russian head of state confidingly on the shoulder and whispered something to him. The appearance in the Kremlin was intended to demonstrate one thing above all: Here are two partners of equal status who together and with equal influence determine the fate of the world.

At the beginning of their meeting on Monday, Medvedev still appeared stiff and uneasy. He seemed on edge as he corrected the interpreter, who Medvedev felt had not accurately translated his words for Obama.

But then Medvedev appeared to grow in stature. He took the opportunity to talk in front of the whole world about Russia's right to be a global power helping to maintain the international order. He called the fight against the proliferation of nuclear weapons "one of the most important tasks of our countries." In a clear reference to Iran and North Korea, he said there were regions in which nuclear bombs could cause huge problems. Russia would work on solutions with its partners, he said, talking of a "common, joint responsibility."

Vision of a Nuclear-Free World

Admittedly the two leaders have not yet signed a new, binding disarmament treaty. But they have signed a preliminary agreement with very detailed targets which Russia and the US want to reach in the next round of disarmament talks. It will now be difficult for either of them to let the negotiations for a successor agreement to the START I treaty, which expires at the end of the year, fail without losing face -- especially as Obama announced that the agreement will be reached later this year.

In Moscow, the two men laid down a framework for that agreement. The number of warheads should be decreased by 1,500 to 1,675 and delivery systems should be cut by 500 to 1,100. If this were to become reality, it would reduce the nuclear arsenals of both countries by about one-third. Obama would be closer to the realization of his vision of a nuclear-free world, and Russia too could bask in the glow of this success and feel happy to be an equal partner with the US.

Nothing hurts Russia these days more than the loss of its superpower status. Obama has understood the need to address this patriotic longing felt by a majority of Russians, and is caressing the Russian soul with his overtures. Although he is still convinced that the planned US missile shield system with its installations in Poland and the Czech Republic can provide little defense against Russia's nuclear arsenal, Obama shows understanding for Russian opposition to the scheme. Obama said Monday that Medvedev had told him he was "very concerned" about the missile shield and raised the prospect of working with the Russians to find a solution -- even if an agreement would take time. Medvedev in turn welcomed the fact that the US was now listening to the Russian view that defensive weapons systems also need to be taken into account when it comes to maintaining balance in the international system.

At the end of the first day of Obama's visit, it was clear how much the US side is making efforts to strengthen the position of the Russian president. Obama was full of praise for Medvedev, calling him "professional" and "straightforward." By contrast, Obama said last week that former President Vladimir Putin, the current Russian prime minister, still had "one foot" in the old, Cold War way of doing things.

Both Obama and Putin appeared keen to bridge over differences on Tuesday morning as they met for the first time for a breakfast meeting at Putin's forest residence outside Moscow. Obama praised Putin's "extraordinary work … on behalf of the Russian people" as president and prime minister, while Putin said he was "glad to have the opportunity to get acquainted" with Obama.

The 'Best' Alternative

Obama's pro-Medvedev course is not that surprising, however. His strategy toward Russia is significantly shaped by Michael McFaul, a renowned Russia expert at Stanford University who advises Obama and is an outspoken critic of Putin. In a March 2008 interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, McFaul said he considered the idea that Putin had stabilized Russia to be a myth and argued that Putin had simply concocted a story that democracy in the 1990s was "bad" for the country and his regime was better. McFaul also said that Medvedev was the "best" alternative.

It's a view that Obama also appears to share. At the press conference with Medvedev, he said that, although he would meet Putin on Tuesday, "my understanding is that President Medvedev is the president and Prime Minister Putin is the prime minister." They allocate power in accordance with Russia's form of government, he added, "in the same way we allocate power in the United States."

That sounds more like wishful thinking than a realistic assessment of the situation. In Russia, at least, hardly anyone believes that Putin has really taken a back seat to the new president. In a survey conducted by the independent public opinion research institute Levada Center, just 12 percent of respondents said they believe that Medvedev has the real power in Russia.

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