Reporter’s diary: A new respect

Neave Barker looks at Washington’s efforts to “reset ties” with Moscow.

Dmitry Medvedev Barack obama


The two leaders made significant headway in putting the Cold War behind them [AFP]

Obama’s second day in Moscow started with a three-course Russian breakfast at Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s country residence.

The president sampled tea brewed in a traditional wood-burning samovar … the fire stoked in the age-old Russian style using a leather boot as bellows.

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While given a warm welcome, there was more than food on the discussion table. 

Last week, Obama described Putin as having one foot in the Cold War past.

Putin responded by calling on the US to abandon plans to site a missile defence shield in Europe.

Russia has always viewed the plan as a threat. Washington insists that “rouge states” Iran and North Korea are the intended targets.

Iranian relations

After breakfast, Obama headed into central Moscow to the graduation ceremony of students from the New Economic School, a centre of liberal thinking in a country hounded by its Cold War past.

Here, Obama gave the clearest indication yet that the controversial missile defence shield may be up for review.

If the threat of ballistic missiles from Iran are eliminated, he said, this will eliminate the driving force behind the missile defence project also.

Obama said: “I’m pleased president [Dimtry] Medvedev and I agreed upon a joint threat assessment of the ballistic challenges of the 21st century, including from Iran and North Korea.

“This is not about singling out individual nations, it’s about the responsibility of all nations. If we fail to stand together, then the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty] and the [UN] Security Council will lose credibility and international law will give way to the law of the jungle, and that benefits no-one.”

The statement puts Russia in a difficult position.

Moscow has close diplomatic and strategic ties with Iran. Both countries have been reluctant to criticise each other politically.

During the visit last month to Siberia by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, no mention was made of the wave of street protests following the contested presidential election.

Likewise, Iran failed to lend its support to the Islamic uprising in Chechnya despite backing similar uprisings in other parts of the world.

Russia has sold billions of dollars worth of arms to the country and helped build the nation’s first nuclear instillation, but Iran’s controversial nuclear programme and the perceived threat of a missile attack has left the West suspicious. 
Iran has become the essential bargaining tool on the future of missile defence in Europe.

If Russia wants the plan suspended, then it will have to use its privileged position with Iran to put pressure on the Ahmadinejad leadership to be more transparent about its military ambitions.


Obama’s keynote speech touched a number of other important areas.

For an administration fond of catchphrases “hitting the reset button” has become the “Yes we can” for Obama’s Moscow visit.

Obama made it clear that it was time to dispel the understanding that the world needs to be run by nations vying for supremacy and that the days of political chess are over.

But the comments are likely to be perceived as over-idealistic by the Russian government which has repeatedly criticised the US for behaving unilaterally in various parts of the world from Latin America to the post-Soviet nations.

Russia feels that its objections to Georgia joining Nato have been overlooked by Washington less than a year after Russia and Georgia were at war.

Still, much headway has been made on resetting relations.

Both sides have pushed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty as an important step forward.

Both nations have also agreed to work together militarily in world conflict zones.

But the main achievement Russia is likely to stress at the end of Obama’s visit is that the US has discovered an unprecedented level of respect and understanding for an old enemy, leaving the darkest era in US-Russia relations firmly in the past.

Source: Al Jazeera

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