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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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