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Obama agrees arms cuts, Afghan transit with Russia

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U.S. President Barack Obama (L) and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev shake hands after a joint news conference at the Kremlin in Moscow July 6, 2009.

Obama agrees arms cuts, Afghan transit with Russia

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Visiting U.S. President Barack Obama and Kremlin leader Dmitry Medvedev agreed a target for cuts in nuclear arms and a deal to let U.S. troops fly across Russia at the start of a trip intended to mend strained ties.

At a cordial, formal news conference in the Kremlin’s vast, gilded St Andrew’s Hall, the two leaders spoke of their resolve to put differences behind them and focus on cooperating to solve global problems such as the spread of nuclear weapons.

Both mentioned the issues that still divide them — Russia’s opposition to Washington’s plans for a missile defence shield in central Europe and U.S. insistence on Georgia’s territorial integrity — but stressed the positives in public.

Obama praised Medvedev as a “straightforward, professional” leader who understood the interests of the Russian people and wanted to understand those of the United States, adding:

“We have resolved to reset U.S.-Russia relations so that we can cooperate more effectively.”

At a signing ceremony, Obama and Medvedev, wearing identical dark suits, white shirts and red ties, pledged to finalise a treaty by year-end to cut the number of deployed nuclear warheads on each side to 1,500-1,675 from levels above 2,200.

Details of the arms deal were open until the night before Obama’s arrival, with negotiators on both sides working through the weekend to secure agreement.

Medvedev described their talks as “very useful and open, businesslike conversations” and said they would aim to build a U.S.-Russia relationship worthy of the 21st century.

Russia will allow 4,500 flights a year carrying U.S. troops and weapons to the war in Afghanistan to cross its vast territory free of charge, a move hailed by the U.S. side as showing Moscow’s willingness to help in the war on the Taliban.

Other accords covered the resumption of U.S.-Russia military cooperation, the creation of a new joint government commission, and an exchange of information on prisoners of war, according to texts released by officials.

Clouds remain on the horizon.

Senior Russian officials repeatedly emphasised in the run-up to the visit that Moscow would not sign an arms treaty later this year unless Obama made concessions on Bush-era plans for an anti-missile system in Europe, a project hated by the Kremlin which fears it could threaten Russia’s security.

Obama has ordered a review of the project and the leaders played down their differences on it at the Kremlin, saying they had agreed a statement to continue to work together to evaluate global threats from ballistic missiles.

Officials on both sides said the statement had not been planned in advance but the two leaders decided to draw it up during their private talks, reflecting their desire to cooperate.

Noting that Obama had listened to Russian objections on missile defence, Medvedev used markedly softer language on the issue than Russian officials have done to date.

“No one is saying that missile defence is harmful in itself or that it poses a threat to someone,” he told the news conference.

It remains to be seen whether Obama gets the same message on Tuesday at a breakfast meeting with the man who holds most political power in Russia and who chose Medvedev for the Kremlin, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

In a slip-up common among visitors confused by Russia’s unusual dual power structure, Obama referred at the news conference to a forthcoming meeting with “President” Vladimir Putin before hastily correcting himself.

Putin was out of Moscow on Monday visiting a combine harvester factory in southern Russia.

Earlier Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov greeted Obama, his wife Michelle and their two daughters as they stepped from Air Force One at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport under unseasonally cold, cloudy skies.

The arrival was not shown live on Russian television and there was generally little sign in Moscow of the “Obamamania” which has greeted the U.S. leader on some other foreign trips.

Obama’s motorcade sped alone along a barricaded highway from the airport towards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for a wreath-laying ceremony. In the city’s outskirts, small groups of onlookers smiled and waved but most looked on without reaction.

Business leaders travelling with Obama want to use the visit to boost trade and investment. Russian trade with the United States was just $36 billion in 2008, the same amount as with Poland, and investment has lagged that of European competitors.

During his talks with Medvedev, Obama raised business concerns with the Kremlin leader, calling for investors in Russia to be treated consistently, according to a U.S. official.

On Tuesday Obama will listen to the country’s embattled democratic opposition, meet former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and make a major speech to Russian students which is likely to touch on his vision of freedom.

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

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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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Obama presses the case for health care reform

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U.S. President Barack Obama speaks on health care during an online town hall forum at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, Virginia, July 1, 2009. (Xinhua/Zhang Yan)

Obama presses the case for health care reform

WASHINGTON, July 1 (Xinhua) — U.S. President Barack Obama pressed the case for health care reform at a town-hall style meeting with common citizens Wednesday.

Fielding questions from the audience and responding to queries submitted via Internet at the North Virginia Community College in Washington’s suburb, he spoke of the urgency of reducing the rapidly swelling cost of health care, an issue he said spoke to “who we are as a country.”

The president has recently repeatedly used the town-hall format to argue for a health care system overhaul, including a prime-time event last week televised from the White House.

“We’ve got to stop clinging to the broken system that doesn’t work,” Obama said.


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U.S. President Barack Obama hugs Debby Smith, a 53-year-old kidney cancer patient, during an online town hall forum on health care at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, Virginia, July 1, 2009. (Xinhua/Zhang Yan)

The president stressed the need for a government-run health care program that would provide a one-stop service for consumers to compare the prices and benefits of various plans.

Responding to concerns about the potential costs of overhauling health care, Obama spoke of reallocating money currently spent on “unwarranted subsidies” to medical insurers and of bolstering revenue, which he said would generate some 950 billion U.S. dollars over the next 10 years.

Throughout the event, he repeatedly invoked the importance of affecting significant change quickly, cautioning against “the cost of doing nothing.”

In his vision, Obama aims to bring down health care costs and provide medical insurance to many of the more than 45 million Americans currently without coverage.

His health care reform plan, which are making their way through five committees in the Congress, also call for a government-run health insurance program to compete with private insurers.

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U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during an online town hall forum on health care at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, Virginia, July 1, 2009. (Xinhua/Zhang Yan)

A government-run health insurance program is one of the most contentious features of the Obama health reform proposals, with Republicans suggesting that such a plan could force health care providers out of business, forcing Americans to switch doctors.

The president’s plan is the first major push for health care reform since former President Bill Clinton’s failed attempts in 1993 and 1994.

A CNN survey released earlier in the day shows the president’s plan has just a slim majority support.

It also finds that although 55 percent think now is the time for the country to reform its health care system, 54 percent say they worry that their health care costs would go up under Obama’s plan.

Only one in five thinks that his or her families would be better off under the Obama plan.

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