Obama Faces Foreign Relations Test in Moscow

Meeting both Medvedev and Putin, Obama will have his diplomacy tested.

July 5, 2009, 4:34 PM

MOSCOW, July 5, 2009— -- President Barack Obama is scheduled to leave Washington tonight on a week-long trip that will be a test of his popularity and foreign policy approach as he tackles such difficult issues like arms control, missile defense and nuclear proliferation.

The president's first stop is Moscow, for the first full-fledged U.S.-Russia summit since 2002.

Obama has said he is hoping to "reset" relations between the United States and Russia, which had deteriorated under former President George W. Bush.

His task is a bit tricky, though, because he will face not just one Russian leader -- but two. A president and a prime minister.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev holds formal power, but the prime minister who hand-picked Medvedev to succeed him, former President Vladimir Putin, "still has a lot of sway in Russia" and needs an in-person reminder the Cold War is over, Obama said last week in an interview with The Associated Press.

"It looks like Vladimir Putin is still making the key decisions and running the show," Angela Stent of the Brookings Institute said.

"Obama would certainly make better use of his time spending more time with Mr. Putin," said Andrew Kuchins of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He suggested that Obama should try to understand what makes Putin tick: The two leaders will meet on Tuesday.

The leaders are meeting to discuss nuclear disarmament, the growing threats of North Korea and Iran.

They will also likely focus on Afghanistan. The United States wants guaranteed access to key supply routes that run through Russian territories as they ramp up the fight against the Taliban.

Obama: Putin Still Taking Cold War Approach to U.S.-Russia Relations

"I think that it's important that even as we move forward with President Medvedev, that Putin understand that the old Cold War approaches to U.S.-Russian relations is outdated," Obama said Thursday in the interview with the AP.

"I think Medvedev understands that. I think Putin has one foot in the old ways of doing business, and one foot in the new," he added.

On those key issues, analysts said, Obama must deal directly with Putin and he must be tough.

"This is going to be a real leadership test for him because this is going to test really how cold blooded he can be," Kuchins said.

Obama has said he expects to emerge from Moscow with a framework for how the United States and Russia will go about reducing their stockpile of nuclear warheads.

Medvedev said in an interview with Italian media that was broadcast on Russian state television today that the United States must compromise on plans for a missile defense system in Eastern Europe to get a deal on cutting back nuclear warheads.

"We consider these issues interconnected," Medvedev said.

The 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START-1) expires on Dec. 5, and both Washington and Moscow have said they would like the treaty extended and expanded.

To achive that, however, there is still work to be done to determine how many weapons both sides will give up and how those steps will be verified.

Both sides have said they hope to have a final deal in place before the deadline.

Meanwhile, Putin has said he hasn't ruled out another run for the presidency in 2012. All the more reason that while Obama may want focus on Russia's current president, he cannot ignore the powerful prime minister.

As he embarks on this fifth foreign trip of his presidency, Obama's approval rating hovers around 60 percent.

Awaiting him upon his return will be the start of Senate hearings on his Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, and intensifying legislative debate over his push to overhaul health care.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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