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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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