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CIS: Obama in Moscow to revive troubled Russia ties

Mon Jul 6 20:18:23 EST 2009

by Stuart Williams

MOSCOW, July 5 AFP - US President Barack Obama on Monday arrived in Russia for a summit aimed at agreeing a roadmap to nuclear arms cuts and reviving a relationship troubled by a string of crises.

A joint declaration on replacing a key disarmament treaty is expected to be a centrepiece of Obama's two-day visit, along with a deal allowing US military supplies destined for Afghanistan to transit across Russia.

Making his first visit to Russia as president, Obama was to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier before meeting President Dmitry Medvedev in the Kremlin.

Both sides have repeatedly used the slogan of pressing "the reset button" to lift a relationship that sunk to a post-Cold War low under the presidency of George W. Bush amid a series of rows capped by Russia's war with Georgia.

But Obama's visit, which will also include meetings with opposition figures and a keynote speech to an economics university, is not expected to be completely smooth.

"A complete reset and partnership is being blocked by disagreements on the main questions," said the Kommersant daily.

The Interfax news agency reported Monday that the two sides had agreed the final text of a framework document on the replacement of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), to be signed by the two presidents.

"The text of the document has been agreed," Interfax quoted a source in the Russian foreign ministry as saying.

Just one day earlier, the agency reported that negotiators had still not agreed the framework document on replacing START, a 1991 treaty imposing strict limits on nuclear arms, which expires in December.

Officials have stressed the two sides are still some distance from a new treaty and that the declaration will set guidelines for negotiators to complete their work by the end of the year and, possibly, numerical targets for cuts.

"There certainly won't be an agreement on the end deal... but I think you will see an announcement that indicates some progress toward reaching that objective," White House arms control specialist Gary Samore said Sunday.

The US president showed he was unafraid of blunt talking on Russia when he said in a pre-visit interview that Medvedev's predecessor, strongman Prime Minister Vladimir Putin still had "one foot" in the past.

The remark set off speculation in the Russian press Obama was seeking to strengthen the youthful Medvedev over Putin. Obama is due to meet Putin for breakfast on Tuesday.

Obama also gave an interview to the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, a publication that has been a constant thorn in the Kremlin's side and was the employer of the murdered Putin critic Anna Politkovskaya.

He described as "odd" Russia's decision to launch a second trial against jailed Russian billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a comment hardly likely to gladden his hosts.

A major potential sticking point in talks will likely be a US plan to install missile defence facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic, an initiative Russia says threatens its security.

The Russian edition of Newsweek said Washington was particularly irked by Moscow's dismissal of the political crisis in Iran as an internal matter and its decision to apply for WTO membership as a regional trade bloc.

"It doesn't smell like a reset. Nothing has remained of the great expectations of the Moscow summit," Newsweek wrote.

"Ahead into the future or back to the USSR?" asked the opposition New Times.

Nevertheless, US officials expect a major boost for their operations in Afghanistan with an agreement for the United States to transport military supplies across Russian territory.

Previously, Washington has only been allowed to transport non-lethal supplies by rail. The new deal should allow the United States to transport military supplies across Russia by air.

Obama will be hoping for a smoother reception than on a 2005 visit to Russia when a coordination mix-up resulted in the then-senator and his colleague Richard Lugar being detained for three hours at the airport in the Urals city of Perm.