MOSCOW | Eight years after President George W. Bush peered into Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin’s psyche and got “a sense of his soul,” his successor on Tuesday took his own look over breakfast and found a “strong,” “practical” and unsentimental advocate for his country.
Rounding out two days of work in Moscow, President Obama met with Mr. Putin, now the prime minister, to seek issues on which they can agree. But he balanced that with several engagements, where he offered encouragement for opposition leaders, business leaders and civil-society advocates, all of whom face struggles under the Russia fashioned, by and large, during Mr. Putin’s eight years as president.
“I’ve called for a ‘reset’ in relations between Russia and the United States, but this can’t just be a matter of two presidents - it has to go deeper,” Mr. Obama said in a graduation address at the New Economic School, Moscow’s leading business school.
“It has to be between our people. It has to be more than just security or dismantling weapons. It has to be about our common prosperity - the jobs we create, the innovation we unleash, the industries that we build,” Mr. Obama said.
Mr. Obama leaves Russia Wednesday morning, having set a deadline and targets for a nuclear arms reduction treaty to be completed by the end of the year, and having assured Russian leaders he intends to change the way the United States relates to its old Cold War adversary.
For his part, Mr. Putin told reporters at the top of his meeting with Mr. Obama that the new U.S. leader now bears “all our hopes for the furtherance of relations between our two countries” after what Mr. Putin said has been a “grayish mood” between the nations.
The one-time KGB spy and one-time community organizer from Chicago shared a breakfast of smoked beluga, black caviar and pancakes on the terrace of Mr. Putin’s residence. Mr. Putin afterward gave no details on the talks, calling them only “substantive, informative and collaborative.”
Relations between Washington and Moscow have deteriorated in recent years, with open disagreements on such issues as the proposed U.S. missile shield in Europe, Russia’s clashes with neighboring Ukraine and Georgia, Iran’s military programs and the state of human and political rights in Russia.
The relationship with Mr. Putin may be among the most complex of Mr. Obama’s presidency. The Russian is the putative No. 2 in his nation’s government, but clearly retains a great deal of power.
Sometimes even Mr. Obama seemed confused. On several occasions he referred to Mr. Putin as president, the top job he relinquished to protege Dmitry Medvedev last year. Mr. Obama told NBC it was just a slip.
“No, I don’t think it’s Freudian. He used to be president. And so … ,” Mr. Obama said.
Still, the Putin-Obama dynamic was the question of the week. The Associated Press on Monday asked Mr. Obama if he had a sense for who was really in charge of Russia, drawing a smirk from Mr. Medvedev and a strong statement from Mr. Obama that Mr. Medvedev is his counterpart.
Along those lines, Mr. Obama has done what he can to boost Mr. Medvedev during his time here, devoting hours to private meetings, attending a dinner with the Russian president and bringing him along to the meeting with business leaders.
In his speech at the New Economic School, Mr. Obama mentioned Mr. Medvedev by name four times and only referred to Mr. Putin by title once.
The American president has made overhauling relations with Moscow a cornerstone of his foreign policy, and in both a press conference with Mr. Medvedev and a speech Tuesday, he said it’s time for both countries to get past having spheres of influence and approaching their relationship as a zero-sum game.