By Michael Scherer / Moscow
Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev, Presidents of the former Cold War rival empires, greeted each other like old friends on Monday, with a cheery chat about the clouds. "Even the weather favors such an intercourse between us," the Russian leader said in a Kremlin sitting room, striking an optimistic tone on a drizzly day. Obama played along. "We might as well be inside today," he said.
Thus the pattern of U.S.-Russian relations all year: each new obstacle is presented as yet another opportunity to forge common ground. Historically intractable conflicts are little more than worthy challenges; a rainstorm is another reason to smile. Following decades of antagonism during the Cold War and its aftermath, Obama and Medvedev have staked substantial political capital on their ability to repair relations between Washington and Moscow and move beyond past battles. Obama talks about hitting a "reset" button in U.S.-Russian relations; his Russian counterpart seeks a level of cooperation "realistically worthy of the 21st century."
By day's end, the sun had broken through, and in their more than three hours together, the two leaders had given the world three signing ceremonies, three joint statements and the creation of a 13-part bilateral commission that will "serve as a new foundation" for further cooperation. Medvedev lifted a ban on imports of certain U.S. livestock, and both countries pledged greater future dialogue on everything from swine flu and North Korea to nuclear-missile stockpiles and prisoners of war from World War II, Vietnam and Korea. On immediate U.S. priorities, there was an important agreement to allow 4,500 U.S. military flights to cross Russia to deliver "lethal supply" for the NATO campaign in Afghanistan — the current main supply line through Pakistan is vulnerable to Taliban attack. On the other key points of contention — U.S. efforts to recruit Russian help in pressuring Iran on its nuclear program; the thorny question of former Soviet republics such as Georgia and Ukraine pushing for NATO membership; Moscow's efforts to reassert its influence over them — the Presidents revealed little of their discussions. "I reiterated my firm belief that Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity must be respected," Obama said, putting a typically sunny spin on their discussions. "Yet even as we work through our disagreements on Georgia's borders, we do agree that no one has an interest in renewed military conflict."
The news of progress was laid on so thick that it was easy to forget just how much the old divisions continue to define the relationship between the two countries. Much of the progress, of course, came on arms control, a quintessential Cold War theme, but then many of the major points of conflict between Russia and the U.S. are holdovers from the era of their imperial rivalry. "Basically, arms control regulates adversarial relationships," observed Carnegie Moscow Center director Dmitri Trenin last week, "and this relationship continues, in many ways, 20 years after the end of the Cold War."
Issues of democratic and human rights also continue to divide the countries. Opposition political parties and news outlets remain subject to state harassment in Russia and also suffer unofficial attacks by often unknown assailants. Medvedev was the handpicked successor to Vladimir Putin, who now serves as Prime Minister although he is widely viewed as the power behind the throne. (Obama will meet with Putin Tuesday morning.) Medvedev was elected President in March 2007 with 70% of the vote, though at least one rival candidate was kept off the ballot; state-owned media heavily favored Medvedev, and some regions of the country reported turnouts of 100%.
Gary Kasparov, the former chess champion who now heads the United Civil Front, an opposition social movement, has said that Obama's courting of Medvedev is having a damaging impact. "Abandon the policy of double standards and call a spade a spade," Kasparov demanded in a recent Russian-magazine interview when asked what message he'd give Obama. "Stop pretending that the current regime under Putin is democratic and thus give it a carte blanche for further abuses."
But these harsh realities were quickly pushed aside by aides to both leaders. In his dealings with foreign leaders, Obama focuses on seeking progress based on both sides' national interests. "This is not the Cold War," Michael McFaul, Obama's top Russia expert, declared after the day's summit ended. "This is not just a relationship about confrontation."
Repairing the U.S.-Russia relationship requires finding points of cooperation and expanding on those. Outstanding disagreements will be tackled only later, in the hope that cooperation will build mutual understanding to help resolve simmering tensions. As Medvedev said in an online video blog before the summit, "Today is not the time to find out whose life is more difficult or which of us is stronger." That time, if it does come, will be later.