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Sunshine Policy

What Obama achieved -- and didn't -- in Moscow.

By , a senior fellow at Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs.
DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty Images
DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty Images

Barack Obama deserves credit for his efforts to reset relations with Russia over the past two days in Moscow. The U.S. president succeeded, at least for now, in changing the tone of the U.S.-Russia relationship, even on issues of disagreement, though many fundamental disputes -- Georgia, Iran, missile defense -- remain. Ultimately, Obama's major success in the past few days was less in the agreements he signed but in the statements he made, the signals he sent, and the broad group of people he met. If there is a bright light to be found amid Washington's many remaining tensions with Moscow, this is it.

Although Obama's first-day meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev produced eight different joint statements or agreements, it was Obama's second day in Moscow that was more important -- and not just because that is when he met with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, still Russia's most influential political figure. No, the second day was more important because of the other people with whom Obama met: Russian civil society representatives, opposition leaders, and students at the New Economic School (NES). In sitting down with staunch Kremlin critics, including Garry Kasparov and Boris Nemtsov, and civil society activists, including noted human rights defender Lyudmila Alexeyeva, Obama underscored his interest in resetting relations not just with the Russian government but with the Russian people and society.

Barack Obama deserves credit for his efforts to reset relations with Russia over the past two days in Moscow. The U.S. president succeeded, at least for now, in changing the tone of the U.S.-Russia relationship, even on issues of disagreement, though many fundamental disputes — Georgia, Iran, missile defense — remain. Ultimately, Obama’s major success in the past few days was less in the agreements he signed but in the statements he made, the signals he sent, and the broad group of people he met. If there is a bright light to be found amid Washington’s many remaining tensions with Moscow, this is it.

Although Obama’s first-day meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev produced eight different joint statements or agreements, it was Obama’s second day in Moscow that was more important — and not just because that is when he met with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, still Russia’s most influential political figure. No, the second day was more important because of the other people with whom Obama met: Russian civil society representatives, opposition leaders, and students at the New Economic School (NES). In sitting down with staunch Kremlin critics, including Garry Kasparov and Boris Nemtsov, and civil society activists, including noted human rights defender Lyudmila Alexeyeva, Obama underscored his interest in resetting relations not just with the Russian government but with the Russian people and society.

The second day was also more important because of Obama’s speech at the NES, in which he clearly articulated his vision for a more democratic Russia, but did so in a way that shouldn’t be deemed as meddling. Citing the importance of rule of law, freedom of speech and assembly, and independent media, Obama touched on areas where Russian developments have been most disturbing. The U.S. president was equally clear in rejecting Russia’s claim to a sphere of influence along its borders. "The days when empires could treat sovereign states as pieces on a chess board are over," he said. Returning to this theme later in his remarks, he said he supported Ukraine’s and Georgia’s prospects for NATO membership, if that is what their populations want. Vice President Joseph Biden’s visit to both countries in two weeks will reinforce this message.

That said, not all came up roses during the president’s Moscow trip. Despite a positive rapport with Medvedev on display at their joint press conference on Monday, Obama singled out Georgia as an area of disagreement. Nor was there a meeting of the minds on Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions: Medvedev never mentioned Iran in his comments during Monday’s press conference, whereas Obama did. Absent some private reassurances, Russia, for a whole host of reasons, is not going to be helpful in applying further pressure on the regime in Tehran. As one Putin advisor said during a conference I attended in Moscow last week, "Iran is a mania with the Americans; it’s not our problem."

The two leaders also differed on missile defense. Medvedev jumped on the issuance of a joint statement as acknowledgement by the United States of linkage between that issue and negotiations on a post-START arms control agreement; the United States had up until that point rejected such linkage. Obama and his team will need to reassure nervous allies in Poland and the Czech Republic — where the United States intends to place 10 interceptor missiles and a radar site — that they are not bargaining chips to be traded away.

On the joint understanding for the START follow-on treaty, where many details need to be worked out on things like verification, the levels agreed upon for reducing warheads are barely lower than the floor agreed to in the 2002 Moscow Treaty. Obama will have a harder time on the domestic front in selling the agreed-upon level for delivery vehicles, since Russia’s arsenal is already within that range but the United States would have to reduce its numbers to comply.

Finally, in announcing the creation of bilateral working groups on a range of issues, most disturbing was the choice on the Russian side for thegroup on civil society of Vladislav Surkov, first deputy chief of staff in Medvedev’s presidential administration. Placing Surkov, known as the author of the phrase "managed democracy," in charge of this working group would be like putting Chechnya’s brutal leader Ramzan Kadyrov in charge of a working group on stabilizing the North Caucasus, if one existed. Both know a lot about their respective issues and are in positions of power, but both are a huge part of the problem.

Storm clouds still hang over U.S-Russian relations, and one visit from Obama will not erase them. But his visit did provide a few rays of sunshine, particularly his effort to reach beyond the Kremlin to connect with Russia’s people. Obama’s challenge now as he leaves Moscow: Make sure those remaining dark clouds don’t lead to a flood of new problems.

David J. Kramer, a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, is a senior fellow at Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs.

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