- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 8, 2009

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.

“In 2009, a great power does not show strength by dominating or demonizing other countries,” Mr. Obama said. “The days when empires could treat sovereign states as pieces on a chessboard are over.”

Last week, Mr. Obama said Mr. Putin had a foot still in the Cold War, the long struggle pitting the U.S. and its allies against the Soviet Union-dominated communist bloc. Asked about that Tuesday, Mr. Obama was more circumspect.

Mr. Putin’s “formative years came out of that period,” Mr. Obama told Fox News.

But briefing reporters after the meeting, a senior administration official said the president has revised his thinking. “I would say that he’s very convinced that the prime minister is a man of today and has got his eyes firmly on the future, as well,” the official said.

Still, as much as U.S. officials said they wanted to end zero-sum thinking in the relationship with Russia, Russian officials continued to see it that way.

Nowhere was that clearer than on missile defense, where Mr. Obama has not ruled out pursuing a George W. Bush administration plan to put a missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic.

On Tuesday, a day after Mr. Obama tried to assure Mr. Medvedev and other Russian leaders that the system is directed at Iran, not Russia, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned that the dispute could undermine a new treaty with Russia on nuclear-arms cuts.

For his part, Mr. Obama continued to chide Russia over its hard-line stance on former Soviet republics such as Ukraine, a possible future entrant into NATO, and Georgia, where Russia used military force to support pro-Moscow separatist enclaves in a brief war last summer.

The morning meeting with Mr. Putin ran two hours, or at least a half-hour longer than planned, putting Mr. Obama behind for his entire schedule for the day. Mr. Obama joked that he didn’t usually do breakfast meetings but made an exception in this case.

Mr. Putin enjoyed a good, though competitive, personal relationship with Mr. Bush. At one point in their relationship, Mr. Putin pointedly compared his own dog with Barney, the Bushes’ Scottish terrier, saying his Labrador was bigger and stronger.

Mr. Bush, after his very first meeting in 2001 with Mr. Putin at a summit in Slovenia, said he found his Russian counterpart trustworthy, and famously added he had gotten “a sense of his soul.”

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