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Obama praises Putin at first meeting

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Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (R), his wife Svetlana (2nd R), U.S. President Barack Obama (L) and first lady Michelle Obama pose for a picture at the presidential residence Gorki outside Moscow July 6, 2009.

Obama praises Putin at first meeting

NOVO OGARYOVO, Russia (Reuters) – Visiting U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday praised Russia’s most powerful politician, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, as the two leaders met for the first time, saying there was an excellent opportunity to improve U.S.-Russia relations.

Visibly awkward, the two men exchanged pleasantries at the start of a meeting at Putin’s forest residence outside Moscow overshadowed by Obama’s criticism of Putin last week in a pre-trip interview as a man with one foot stuck in the past.

“I am aware of not only the extraordinary work that you’ve done on behalf of the Russian people in your previous role as prime minis-, uh, as president, but in your current role as prime minister,” Obama said.

Putin, looking down and mostly avoiding eye contact with Obama, said there had been periods of greyish mood and confrontation in U.S.-Russia relations but added:

“We link hopes for development of our relationship with your name.”

Obama’s meeting with Putin, a former KGB spy who served as president from 2000-2008 before handing over the top Kremlin job to his hand-picked successor Dmitry Medvedev, follows talks on Monday with Medvedev.

They produced agreements on a target for cuts in nuclear arms, a deal to let U.S. troops fly across Russia to fight in Afghanistan and the establishment of a joint governmental commission to improve relations between the two former Cold War superpowers.

On the second day of his visit to Russia, Obama was also due to deliver a major speech on democracy, the global economy and the U.S.-Russian relationship to students at Moscow’s New Economic School.

Obama sought to reassure his student audience, who listened politely in silence, of his vision for better relations between Washington and Moscow but acknowledged continued differences between the two countries on issues such as missile defence and NATO expansion.

“Let me be clear: America wants a strong, peaceful and prosperous Russia,” Obama said in a speech to the graduating students from Moscow’s New Economic School.

SPHERES OF INFLUENCE

The speech was not, as would have been expected for a U.S. presidential address, shown live on Russian television channels. The media have generally given a rather low profile to Obama.

“…we also recognise the future benefit that will come from a strong and vibrant Russia.”

Obama is on the second day of a visit to Russia intended to “reset” relations between the world’s two biggest holders of nuclear weapons following a period of tension and argument.

“This must be more than a fresh start between the Kremlin and the White House,” Obama said of the “reset” in his speech.

“It must be a sustained effort among the American and Russian people to identify mutual interests, and to expand dialogue and cooperation.”

Obama made clear his opposition to the old Soviet concept of “spheres of influence”, an allusion to Moscow’s claim on special influence over former Soviet states like Ukraine and Georgia.

Instead he urged the students to strive for a peaceful, collaborative world in words which some Russia-watchers said recalled those of former U.S. president Bill Clinton during his visits to Moscow.

“The future does not belong to those who gather armies on a field of battle or bury missiles in the ground,” Obama said. “The future belongs to young people with the education and imagination to create.”

He was speaking after a first meeting with Russia’s most powerful politician, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who kept a close personal rapport with Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush despite poor diplomatic relations.

U.S. officials described the meeting as “very succesful” and said the two men had formed the basis for good relations.

Obama and Putin exchanged pleasantries at the start of talks at Putin’s forest residence outside Moscow overshadowed by Obama’s criticism of the Russian leader last week in a pre-trip interview as a man with one foot stuck in the Cold War.

Obama was quick to praise Putin for “extraordinary work” but Putin avoided eye contact with Obama and looked down at the floor as he made opening remarks, saying there had been periods of greyish relations and confrontation between the two nations.

After the meeting, which lasted more than two hours, Putin came out of his residence to wish Obama farewell.

Obama’s meeting with Putin, a former KGB spy who served as president from 2000-2008 before handing over the top Kremlin job to his hand-picked successor Dmitry Medvedev, followed talks on Monday with Medvedev.

They produced deals on a target for cuts in nuclear arms, a deal to let U.S. troops fly across Russia to fight in Afghanistan and the establishment of a joint governmental commission to improve relations between the two former rivals.

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Obama heads to Moscow for ‘reset’ summit

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Russian Matryoshka dolls decorated with images of U.S. President Barack Obama (R), his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev (C) and Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are seen on display at a market in Moscow July 3, 2009.

Obama heads to Moscow for ‘reset’ summit

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama left for Moscow on Sunday promising a far-reaching effort to “reset” U.S.-Russian relations that hit a post-Cold War low under the Bush administration.

Obama is looking for progress on the outlines of a new nuclear arms pact and improved cooperation in the Afghan war effort, but deep divisions remain over U.S. missile defense, NATO expansion and the 2008 Russia-Georgia war.

Traveling to Moscow for the first time since taking office, he hopes to keep building pragmatic ties with President Dmitry Medvedev but is likely to have a more strained introduction to Vladimir Putin, who still dominates Russian politics.

Obama set the stage with a pre-trip assessment that Putin still had “one foot” planted in the Cold War. Putin, who hand-picked Medvedev as his successor last year and has stayed on as prime minister, rejected Obama’s criticism and insisted it was U.S. policy that needed to be updated.

Despite the testy exchange, the two sides have settled on the old issue of arms control as the cornerstone for forging a less rancorous relationship between Washington and Moscow.

“I seek to reset relations with Russia because I believe that Americans and Russians have many common interests, interests that our governments recently have not pursued as actively as we could have,” Obama told the Russian opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta ahead of the summit.

He left Washington on Sunday evening and was due to hold talks with Medvedev at the Kremlin on Monday afternoon.

On the eve of Obama’s visit, negotiators were still bargaining over how far the presidents will go in setting down markers for further cuts in nuclear arsenals. Such markers are supposed to form the basis for a treaty to be signed by December when an existing pact known as START-1 expires.

Medvedev said in an interview published on Sunday the United States must compromise on plans to deploy an anti-missile system in Europe that Russia fiercely opposes.

The summit will also yield the Kremlin’s permission to ship U.S. weapons supplies across Russian territory en route to U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, sources on both sides said.

The transit deal will open up a crucial corridor for the United States as it steps up its fight against a resurgent Taliban in line with Obama’s new Afghanistan strategy.

DIVISIONS

Progress on these fronts will be touted as evidence that both sides want to put their rocky relations of recent years on a better path.

It will be harder to bridge the gap on other issues.

Obama acknowledged in the Novaya Gazeta interview “Russian sensitivities” over the proposed anti-missile shield. But he made clear he would not accept any effort by Moscow to link arms control talks to missile defense.

Moscow, which sees proposed missile-defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic as a threat to its security, has insisted in recent weeks that the two issues are intertwined.

Putin hit back, saying Russians “are standing firmly on both feet and always look to the future”.

In an indication of the strained atmosphere, Russia’s Kremlin-controlled main television channels — the chief source of news for most Russians — have played down Obama’s visit.

Sunday evening’s main Channel One news show did not mention Obama in its main headlines and opened with a lengthy report on Medvedev exhorting Russians to save energy. Rival channel Vesti began its show talking about the death of a folk singer.

“This is being played as essentially a low-key visit that shows the American leadership’s respect for the Russian leadership,” Dmitry Trenin, head of the Moscow Carnegie Centre think-tank, said. “This is not some star coming to town.”

The Other Russia and Solidarity opposition movements announced plans for a protest rally in central Moscow on Monday evening to coincide with Obama’s visit.

(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Guy Faulconbridge and Amie Ferris-Rotman)

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