- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 22, 2009

NEW YORK | President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev have a new chance this week to reinforce their commonality as leaders who want to move beyond old prejudices, but both men face serious questions about the strength of their leadership on the world stage.

Mr. Obama received warm receptions abroad early in his presidency, but has yet to see that translate into concrete concessions from allies or competitors. At home, he is in the midst of an epic struggle to pass his health care reform package.

Mr. Medvedev, who at 44 is four years younger than his American counterpart, is still viewed by many as second fiddle to former president and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, nearly 18 months into his presidency.

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“I would be upset if you didn’t ask me this question. Our interview in this case would be considered as a failure,” Mr. Medvedev joked when asked whether he or Mr. Putin runs the country during an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on Sunday.

The two young, talented and still unproven world leaders will resume talks here in a one-on-one meeting Wednesday, with a range of issues that include nuclear arms cuts on the agenda.

Experts say there is great potential for Mr. Obama and Mr. Medvedev — both lawyers who have cultivated an image as reformers — to improve relations between their respective countries, which have a long history of distrust dating back to the days of the Cold War.

“What helps drive this relationship is that neither of them is emotionally bogged down in the past,” said Toby Gati, a former White House adviser on Russia to President Bill Clinton now with the law firm Akin Gump.

“It’s not a ‘kumbaya’ relationship by any means,” she said. “It’s just a relationship more based on new international realities and an understanding that those realities are changing.”

When the two men met in Moscow last July, they talked for several hours longer than usual and Mr. Medvedev showed Mr. Obama his office desk where he records his monthly video blog. The Russian told the American that he had read Mr. Obama’s Harvard Law Review articles when he was studying law.

By contrast, when Mr. Obama met with Mr. Putin the next day, the 56-year old former KGB agent greeted the American president with an hourlong lecture on the history of the Cold War, the very subject that Mr. Obama said he was not interested in discussing.

Mr. Putin’s Cold War mindset, and his continued influence inside the Russian government, pose a significant challenge to Mr. Obama, who wants to “reset” the U.S.-Russia relationship. Changing the Washington-Moscow dynamic, for Mr. Obama, includes reaching a nuclear weapons treaty to replace the START agreement that expires in December, as well as gaining greater Russian cooperation on issues such Iran’s nuclear programs.

So far, the Kremlin remains opposed, along with China, to imposing a new round of sanctions on Tehran, despite a report last week that the Iranians have the technical knowledge to make a nuclear bomb and are trying to acquire the ability to weaponize a nuclear device by putting it on a missile.

Russia has a lively business relationship with Iran and also does not want to inflame tensions with Islamic elements of its population in the Chechnya region.

For their part, the Russians want the U.S. to back off its support for the entry of former communist bloc countries such as Ukraine and Georgia into NATO, according to Mr. Medvedev. U.S.-Russian relations were badly strained by Moscow’s brief war with neighboring Georgia in the summer of 2008.

“If the number of countries joining NATO is getting greater and greater, and NATO is approaching Russia, it doesn’t give us any satisfaction. We don’t like it,” Mr. Medvedev said.

Mr. Obama last week backed off on the plan, proposed by the Bush administration, to install missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. Critics view the move as a concession to Russia, which harshly criticized the plan.

Some in the Obama administration have said that, while the shift in the missile defense plan was not made with Russia in mind, the move may help relations between the two countries and set the table for an agreement on nuclear arms reductions.

Whether the Russians view it that way may depend on whether or not they can bring themselves to concede that what is good for the U.S. may also be good for them. And therein lies a key distinction, experts think, between the way Mr. Medvedev and Mr. Putin view the world.

“For the Russians, it’s hard to understand the kind of relationship Obama is offering, because the concept of win-win is not in the Russian’s psyche. It’s just not,” Mrs. Gati said. “But at least Medvedev appears to be listening to what Obama is saying and taking it seriously.”

Much is made of the fact that Mr. Medvedev entered government after the Cold War ended, but also that he has experience as a business executive in Russia’s timber and oil sector, which Mr. Putin, who rose through the ranks of the former Soviet Union’s spy agency, does not.

“No matter what you think about Russian business, you can’t have a business relationship over the long term where it’s ‘heads I win, tails you lose.’ Of necessity you have a different view of your partner in business than you would if you had spent your whole career in the KGB,” Mrs. Gati said.

But others view this as a merely superficial difference between the two Russian leaders.

Mr. Medvedev “is still someone who has worked with Putin for most of his adult life,” said Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine now at the Brookings Institution.

Mr. Medvedev worked for Mr. Putin when the latter was mayor of St. Petersburg, and when Mr. Putin became president in 1999 he brought Mr. Medvedev with him to fill a top staff position.

“The business background that Medvedev brings does create the possibility that he may be looking in win-win terms, whereas Putin brings a zero-sum view, which prevailed during the Cold War,” Mr. Pifer said. “It could lead to a point where there are very different approaches that produce a policy dispute.”

But, he said that, so far, “it’s hard to see on any big policy issues where there’s been a big difference.”

There is no doubt that Mr. Medvedev believes that Russia needs to modernize its economy by diversifying away from a reliance on natural resource exports and by tackling corruption, and he has given indications that he would like to expand freedom of speech and of the press, which deteriorated under Mr. Putin.

In his CNN interview, Mr. Medvedev said that he and Mr. Putin “are close in our convictions.”

Having said that, Mr. Medvedev added that “when talking about some nuances and preferences, yes, clearly there could be differences.”

“I have my own views, he has his own views,” he said.

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