- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 14, 2009

President Obama’s weeklong trip overseas yielded modest accomplishments but left a host of unanswered questions and self-imposed deadlines that will test whether his power of personal persuasion will work in international diplomacy.

Mr. Obama left Russia with a December deadline for finishing a nuclear arms reduction treaty. He left a summit of nations in Italy with a deadline, also in December, for completing an agreement to address climate change. He also has a deadline in September for checking Iran’s nuclear ambitions, perhaps with sanctions.

The chance of meeting all or even any of these will be difficult, analysts agree.

“We’re going to learn more toward the end of the year. Then we’ll see to what extent the Russians are ready to join us in tough sanctions on Iran,” said Andrew C. Kuchins, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Russia-Eurasia program.

He said Russia’s intention on missile treaties might also come clearer by then. The whole situation could get more complicated, though, if there’s an outbreak of violence in the former Soviet republic of Georgia where, he said, “things are looking rather tense right now.”

While Western European leaders were quite taken with Mr. Obama - going so far as to applaud his arrival at one photo session in Italy - Russian leaders were unmoved.

Two days after Mr. Obama told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev his plans for missile defense were aimed at Iran, Mr. Medvedev rejected that, saying he still viewed plans for a defense site in Eastern Europe as a threat.

And even as the Russian president signed on to the Group of Eight major economies document calling for 80 percent emissions cuts by 2050, his adviser told reporters they couldn’t meet the target and said it was “unacceptable.”

The Russians weren’t the only ones who balked at the climate change agenda. Developing countries such as China, Brazil and India, rejected Mr. Obama’s and Western European leaders’ request that they agree to cut their greenhouse emissions.

Still, the National Security Network, a liberal-leaning advocacy group, said Mr. Obama did get much of what he wanted from the trip: a unified statement from the G-8, including Russia, condemning Iran’s nuclear program as well as a $20 billion world commitment - $5 billion more than expected - for food aid to developing countries, with new good-government strings attached to the funding.

Mr. Obama also brought a sobering message to Ghana, using that stable African democracy to criticize other African governments who abuse power or fail to serve their citizens.

Part of Mr. Obama’s challenge, though, will be negotiating the complex internal politics of Russia, where Vladimir Putin, the former president and current prime minister, continues to exercise power, even as his protege Mr. Medvedev tries to carve out his own sphere of power.

Mr. Obama had a series of long meetings with Mr. Medvedev, which Douglas Rediker, director of the Global Strategic Finance Initiative at the New America Foundation, said was a conscious decision.

“That makes Medvedev look stronger. It doesn’t necessarily diminish Putin, but I think there was an attempt to enhance Medvedev,” he said.

Mr. Rediker said Mr. Obama did tamp down the “bald-faced antagonism coming out of Russia” that has characterized the relationship at times, adding that the president has begun a long-term process of establishing a relationship based on pragmatism to replace the zero-sum relationship.

But Mr. Obama’s meetings with Mr. Putin did not go as smoothly. Sources said the Russian spent much of his 90-minute meeting with Mr. Obama lecturing the president on the history of U.S.-Russia relations, and Mr. Putin followed up that meeting with a visit to a biker gang’s headquarters.

Mr. Kuchins said Mr. Putin remains a major hurdle for Mr. Obama’s goal of convincing Russia that its relationship with the United States is not zero-sum.

“Putin’s not in any mood to reset the relationship and we shouldn’t be surprised he’s not,” Mr. Kuchins said.

Adding to Mr. Obama’s difficulties, average Russians didn’t particularly notice Mr. Obama - a stark contrast with other European capitals where he’s been warmly received.

NBC interviewed average Russians in Moscow during Mr. Obama’s visit and found them either unaware or unimpressed that Mr. Obama was among them. And the president’s major address was not carried widely on Russian television.

“Obama is not a rock star in Russia, he is just another U.S. president and therefore likely to turn his back on Russia,” said Charles A. Kupchan, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, in a piece posted on the council’s Web site.

He said Mr. Obama did return with some solid accomplishments, but there is a long way to go to persuade Russians to drop their wariness, and Mr. Obama has already exhausted the easy steps in his first trip.

“Once you set aside arms control, then the issues get tougher. For example, on the possibility of Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO, on the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia - the breakaway regions of Georgia [that were “liberated” by Russian troops last August] - on the status of Kosovo [which Russia does not recognize as an independent country and the United States does] the United States and Russia are really quite far apart,” he said.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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