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Obama Appeals for Stronger Partnership with Russia

July 7, 2009 at 6:00 PM EDT
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Stressing "common interests," President Obama made the case Tuesday for a renewed spirit of cooperation between the United States and Russia. Margaret Warner speaks with Gwen Ifill from Moscow.

JIM LEHRER: President Obama wound up his trip to Russia today with a new appeal for better relations; that was the message in a meeting with Prime Minister Putin and a speech to a graduating class.

Gwen Ifill has our lead story report.

GWEN IFILL: The powerful former president of Russia welcomed President Obama this morning for a breakfast meeting at his estate outside Moscow. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin served as president until last year, when his chosen successor, Dmitry Medvedev, was elected.

Today, Putin spoke of improving relations with the United States, but he also acknowledged complex and sometimes difficult disputes.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, prime minister, Russia (through translator): There were periods when our relations flourished quite a bit, and there were also periods of, shall we say, grayish mood between our two countries and of stagnation. With you, we link all our hopes for the furtherance of relations between our two countries.

GWEN IFILL: President Obama said last week that Putin, who was for years a KGB officer, had, quote, “one foot in the old ways of doing business.” Putin responded, saying his feet were, quote, “planted in the future, as is everyone in Russia.”

Mr. Obama offered a more conciliatory assessment this morning.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I’m aware of not only the extraordinary work that you’ve done on behalf of the Russian people in your previous role as prime minister — as president, but in your current role as prime minister.

So we think there’s an excellent opportunity to put U.S.-Russian relations on a much stronger footing. And we may not end up agreeing on everything, but I think that we can have a tone of mutual respect and consultation that will serve both the American people and the Russian people well.

GWEN IFILL: The president later told American network television interviewers that he found Putin “shrewd, tough and unsentimental.”

Then, he traveled back to Moscow for a commencement address at the New Economic School. It was founded in the early 1990s as the Soviet Union was disintegrating.

BARACK OBAMA: Let me be clear: America wants a strong, peaceful and prosperous Russia.

GWEN IFILL: The president spoke to the graduating class of the issues that unite the U.S. and Russia and of those that still divide the two countries, but he said disagreements need not make the two nations into adversaries again.

BARACK OBAMA: There is the 20th-century view that the United States and Russia are destined to be antagonists and that a strong Russia or a strong America can only assert themselves in opposition to one another.

The pursuit of power is no longer a zero-sum game. Progress must be shared. That’s why I have called for a reset in relations between the United States and Russia.

GWEN IFILL: Afterward, Mr. Obama met with Mikhail Gorbachev, whose policies as Soviet leader in the 1980s helped open the closed communist society.

The president then talked with business and civil society leaders and said that U.S.- Russian cooperation must move beyond official channels.

BARACK OBAMA: 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.

GWEN IFILL: And late in the day, he met with political opposition leaders, whose influence on the democratic process in Russia has been dramatically curtailed in recent years.

Mr. Obama leaves Russia tomorrow for the Group of 8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy, and an audience with the pope in Rome later this week.

Margaret Warner has been covering the story in Moscow. I spoke with her earlier today.

Margaret, it’s good to see you. President Obama spoke today of staging a reset in U.S.-Russia relations. How did that play out?

Response to president's visit

Margaret Warner
The NewsHour
I talked to some students afterwards. And even though they didn't go crazy during the speech, they were very struck by that, that the United States was now seeking a partnership.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, it was in his speech at the New Economic School, Gwen. And in calling for a partnership with Russia, in saying that he wanted Russia to occupy its rightful place as a great power, he really was sending a new message to the Russians here who have been of the view, as we reported last week and this week, that the U.S. has wanted to really take advantage of Russia's weakness after the Cold War.

And so for them to hear him talk about wanting a prosperous and secure Russia -- I talked to some students afterwards. And even though they didn't go crazy during the speech, they were very struck by that, that the United States was now seeking a partnership.

He's also done an interesting thing, which is to use the imagery of the Second World War to talk about a time when Russia or the Soviet Union and the U.S. were allies. The very first thing he did on arrival was to go to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, behind me up in Red Square, and lay a wreath.

And he talked today about the time when the U.S. and Russia were allies in what he called the greatest struggle of the 20th century and likened the young men who died at Normandy Beach to young Soviet soldiers who died defending and trying to retake the eastern border.

So it really was driving home the entire theme of this trip, today's speech.

Meeting Putin

Margaret Warner
The NewsHour
Prime Minister Putin may not be president here but has a lot of power vis-a-vis President Medvedev.

GWEN IFILL: He seemed to be making quite a generational linkage between himself and the current president. Yet his meeting with the former president, current Prime Minister Putin, wasn't quite as warm, at least it didn't seem that way from here.

MARGARET WARNER: It wasn't quite as warm. Yes, I think that's fair to say, Gwen. They had never met before. They went out actually to Prime Minister Putin's dacha in the country. And we're told by the Russian press that the prime minister's breakfast for him was a classic Russian breakfast: blinis and caviar and tea made in a Russian samovar.

But the briefers who told us about it, the American briefers, said they got right down to brass tacks. They aired their differences. Words were used like "candid, honest and frank," which is usually diplo-speak for fairly blunt, if not brutal.

On the other hand, they said it was quite open and not defensive. In other words, there wasn't any real posturing.

They did agree, for instance, that nuclear weapons proliferation was a threat and terrorism was a threat. They really disagreed on Georgia, and they really disagreed on missile defense. But on that latter issue, they did -- according to the Americans, anyway -- that Putin and President Obama agreed that they would continue talking about this, the two countries would, and would be trying to listen this time to the other side.

At the end, President Obama, he did a couple of interviews, and he called Putin shrewd and smart and tough. And he also said, you know, he didn't think on some of these issues there would be a meeting of the minds any time soon.

But I think it's clear from the fact that, for instance, it was President Obama who extended the meeting by another half-hour, because he wanted to make sure they had a really firm basis and understanding, that this was not a courtesy call and that President Obama fully recognizes that Prime Minister Putin may not be president here but has a lot of power vis-a-vis President Medvedev, with whom, as you said, he seems to have a warmer relationship.

Building business ties

Margaret Warner
The NewsHour
President Obama again made the case, as he had in his speech, that the democratic freedoms that we take for granted -- I mean, freedom of press or independent judiciary -- are essential building blocks for a successful society and one that thrives.

GWEN IFILL: When it comes to issues about business, President Obama seemed to be focusing on trade promotion, human rights, economic security, and casting them as common goals that we have with a nation that used to be our enemy.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, Gwen. And, in fact, you just linked the two things that he also linked, which is, on the one hand, you think of sometimes business promotion as being one area and democracy promotion as being another.

But the White House sees it really that they're very linked, that if business ties between the U.S. and Russia can grow -- and they're really very small now, despite the American investment here -- the trade between the two countries is 1 percent of all U.S. global trade -- but that if they can help increase this and help boost these ties, it helps create a constituency here in Russia for two things: one, a stronger U.S.-Russia relationship; and, two, for rule of law, contract law, independent judiciary, some of the building blocks of what we consider a democratic society.

So, in fact, he went with President Medvedev to the business summit, and he sort of praised President Medvedev there for what President Medvedev has said he wants to do, in terms of ending some of the bureaucracy. He doesn't use the word "corruption," but that's clearly the subject.

Then he went alone to a meeting with civil society leaders. He wanted President Medvedev to come; the White House pushed very hard for that. President Medvedev did not do that.

But there, President Obama again made the case, as he had in his speech, that the democratic freedoms that we take for granted -- I mean, freedom of press or independent judiciary -- are essential building blocks for a successful society and one that thrives.

And he said, in both venues, I wouldn't be sitting before you as an African-American or standing before you and president of the United States if we didn't have room for dissent and protest, if there weren't a way for minorities in our country to make their voices heard and essentially perfect our society.

So he was trying to really tie the two together and very much a message to President Medvedev to, you know, live up to his rhetoric about wanting greater rule of law in this country.

GWEN IFILL: Was he received in Russia the way he's been received in other foreign nations he's visited, that's to say with a kind of celebrity status? Or was it different?

MARGARET WARNER: Very different. Very, very different, Gwen.

Yesterday, I mean, there were no crowds whenever his motorcade moved, but it was pretty rainy. But today, for instance, as his motorcade went out to Putin's dacha and came back, people were sort of looking up apparently. I wasn't in the pool, but that was the report.

But there were no throngs of people. There's no Obama-mania here. There has been a consistent anti-American drumbeat in the press for the last 8 to 10 to 12 years, and a recent poll here found that fewer than a quarter of Russians -- I think it was 23 percent -- trust President Obama to do the right thing in international affairs.

Now, it's been pointed out to me that that's at least in double-digits, better than President Bush, but it still shows that there's a deep well of mistrust here and that this trip for President Obama was just the beginning of trying to engage Russian society, as well as the Russian government, in seeing our relationship in a new way.

GWEN IFILL: Margaret Warner reporting for us from Red Square, thank you so much.