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U.S. –Russian Summit: Will the Results Match the Rhetoric?


After the glow produced by an exchange of warm words by U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev at the Moscow summit earlier this week, many regional analysts and news commentators are looking to the future with a somewhat chillier glance. They question how the promises they made will play out in the long term.

The American and Russian presidents agreed to a framework for a new nuclear arms reduction treaty to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) that will expire in less than five months. It will limit the number of nuclear warheads each side can deploy and the number of missiles they have to launch them.

A Russian Perspective

Although many members of the American media initially focused on the pledge to have a major new agreement by year’s end, Russian journalist Dmitri Siderov is skeptical. Siderov, the Washington bureau chief of Kommersant, a business and political daily in Moscow, questions whether there will be genuine follow-through. “I don’t see how it will reset U.S.-Russian relations,” Siderov said, referring to the Obama administration’s stated goal of doing just that.

Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA’s International Press Club, Siderov suggested that the Moscow summit was primarily an exercise in public relations whose value was mainly cosmetic. According to Siderov, the most noteworthy development during the summit was the announcement that Moscow would permit the transit of U.S. soldiers and weapons through Russian airspace to support the war in Afghanistan. But he cautioned that perhaps Washington would be wise to develop an alternate plan in the event the Kremlin reverses its decision.

Despite these reservations, Siderov said he thinks it was a good idea for the two presidents to meet and get to know one another better. “But I think President Medvedev is charge of almost nothing.” Siderov’s inference, of course, is that the real power in Russia remains with former president and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

A Polish Perspective

That assessment is definitely not shared by Polish television TVN foreign desk editor Anna Czerwinska. She sees the political situation in the Kremlin differently and points to the comfort level between the two heads of state. “Before the dinner on Monday, you could see the Obamas and the Medvedevs were getting along extremely well. Tuesday, during the breakfast with Mr. Putin, it was more stiff and heavy,” Czerwinska observes. In fact, the Russian Prime Minister and the American President spent only two hours together.

One of the most contentious issues in U.S.-Russian relations concerns the missile shield Washington has proposed building to protect its European allies from attack, principally from future threats by a nuclear-armed Iran or Korea. “For the Polish people, during Barack Obama’s visit to Russia, the most important thing was the missile defense issue because there was talk earlier that the current U.S. administration may reconsider the idea of building some elements of the missile defense system in Poland and radar in the Czech Republic,” Czerwinska explained.

A Ukrainian Perspective

Other areas of great concern, especially in the republics of the former Soviet Union, are human rights, the rule of law, and freedom of expression. Ukrainian media consultant Oksana Forostyna in Lviv said she was disappointed that the media in her own country did not focus more on the American President’s support for freedom of speech and liberal democratic values.

Dmitri Siderov also pointed to the lack of attention from regional analysts and from Washington, who consistently missed what he called “a very important detail” about a new bilateral commission to be set up by U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. That is, the working group on Civil Society is to be led by the first deputy head of Kremlin administration. “Vladislav Surkov is well known among civil rights activists, non-governmental organizations, and independent media as someone who put a lot of effort into implementing the Kremlin’s idea of not welcoming dissent of any kind,” Siderov said.

On the other hand, Oksana Forostyna suggested that the U.S. President was probably giving greater weight to long-term strategy than to short-term tactics. “I think the good news for Ukraine is that President Obama is a man of policy, not a man of politics,” Forostyna added.

Some Sticking Points

Despite the fact that the U.S. President did not openly confront the Russian leaders on the subject of human rights and democracy during the two-day summit in Moscow, he did give an interview to the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta on the day of his arrival. And at the end he met with leading members of the political opposition and representatives of non-governmental organizations.

President Obama also spoke to students at Russia’s New Economic School about his respect for Russian culture and history and paid tribute to Russia’s enormous contribution to the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. However, his speech was not broadcast live by any of the major television channels in Russia.

It appeared that the American and Russian leaders agreed to disagree on whether Ukraine and Poland should eventually be allowed to join NATO and the European Union. And they did not dwell publicly on what Moscow views as a major obstacle in U.S.-Russian relations.


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