MOSCOW — President Dmitry Medvedev’s first meeting with Barack Obama brought Russia a shot of prestige, upbeat headlines about nuclear-arms cuts and a powerful signal that Moscow has the ear of the new U.S. president.
The price tag for Russia so far: virtually zero.
Medvedev’s talks with Obama set a constructive new tone after years of growing acrimony between the U.S. and an assertive Russia. Their joint vow to reduce the two biggest nuclear arsenals on the planet cast a softer light on Russia, which has worried Europe with recent natural-gas supply cutoffs and threats to put missiles on its borders.
Unlike Cold War summits, the talks had little of the atmosphere of a zero-sum struggle with one side emerging the victor. Both presidents can claim progress.
Obama pledged to support Moscow’s World Trade Organization membership bid, which could help end what Russia sees as the embarrassment of being the largest economy outside the WTO. Obama also said he would seek U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, something Moscow has long wanted from Washington.
And in a nod to the Kremlin’s self-image as a chief guardian of global security, Obama also acknowledged Russia’s proposal for a new trans-Atlantic security arrangement — a key Medvedev initiative that former President George W. Bush’s administration pointedly ignored.
For his part, Medvedev pleased Obama by joining the U.S. in calling for clarity from Iran on its nuclear program and warning North Korea against a planned rocket launch. In the past, Russia has cast the U.S. as part of the problem on the Korean peninsula, and backed Iranian denials that it is seeking nuclear weapons.
But at least publicly, Medvedev made no commitment to increase pressure on Iran. He did not promise to support harsher sanctions in the U.N. Security Council over Iran’s nuclear activities or rule out further weapons sales to Tehran.
His signal of support for the U.S. effort in Afghanistan was also short on detail. He did not say Moscow would press Kyrgyzstan to call off its eviction of American forces from an important air base, for instance, or help the U.S. find a new Central Asian staging area for Afghan operations.
There was no sign of a Russian retreat on the divisive disputes that dragged ties to a post-Cold War low last year. Moscow remains adamantly opposed to the potential deployment of a missile shield in Eastern Europe, and is likely to use the issue as leverage in the talks the presidents agreed to set in motion on a replacement for the START I nuclear arms treaty.
Obama has displayed less enthusiasm than Bush for the proposed U.S. missile shield, but he did not tip his hand on the issue Wednesday, and made no visible concessions on other matters, either.
Russia opposes any further eastward expansion of NATO, and remains starkly at odds with the U.S. on Georgia following its war with the ex-Soviet republic last August. The Kremlin has made clear it will not consider U.S. calls to retract its recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia or withdraw forces from the separatist regions at the heart of the war.
Underscoring the persistent animus, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko on Thursday warned the U.S. against helping the “aggressor” Georgia rebuild its military.
The main ingredient in Russia’s recipe for success was the same as in the era of Soviet-American superpower summits: its nuclear arsenal.
By trumpeting efforts to reach a new nuclear arms reduction deal before the last major Cold War pact expires in December, Russia reminded the world — as well as the audience at home — of the might that still sets it apart.
“The leaders of two major world powers,” was how the state-run newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta described Obama and Medvedev in its front-page story Thursday about the meeting, which it deemed “quite successful.”
Thursday’s G-20 summit, meanwhile, allowed Russia to avoid appearing too cozy with the United States, which the Kremlin has cast as the culprit behind everything from the war with Georgia to the global financial crisis.
On the main morning news show on state-run Rossiya television, the anchor played up Medvedev’s meeting with the Chinese leader and stressed that Russia wants to reform the global financial system while the U.S. thinks it can be fixed. He emphasized European opposition to U.S. economic proposals, which he said amounted to “switching on the money-printing presses.”
Moscow correspondent Steve Gutterman of The Associated Press has covered Russia since 2002.