WASHINGTON — The first meeting between President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart in London on Wednesday will test assertions by the two powers, which still target thousands of nuclear weapons at each other, that they want to repair relations that have been at their iciest since the Cold War.
Both countries face a range of pressing issues — from arms control and Iran's nuclear program to the war in Afghanistan and the global economic crisis — on which they've declared their readiness to set aside tensions and work together.
"Possible areas of cooperation abound," Russian President Dmitry Medvedev wrote Tuesday in a Washington Post opinion piece. "Neither Russia nor the United States can tolerate drift and indifference in our relations."
Medvedev said he agreed with Obama that the immediate priority is resuming the disarmament process that stalled under the Bush administration. They're expected to revive that effort by agreeing to open talks on an accord to replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START I, a pact that expires in December.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Ledger-Enquirer
A new accord likely would mandate further cuts in the U.S. and Russian arsenals, now limited to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads, as a step toward even deeper reductions. It also would preserve key aspects of the START I inspection and monitoring system by which each country ensures that the other is abiding by its arms control agreements.
Obama and Medvedev, meeting on the eve of a G-20 summit, are also expected to issue a joint declaration that outlines efforts to find common ground on non-proliferation, Iran, economic cooperation, the al Qaida-backed insurgency in Afghanistan and other issues.
"Obviously the atmospherics around our relationship with Russia have dramatically improved in the last several weeks," said Denis McDonough, a deputy national security adviser, on Saturday. "But the get-together on (Wednesday) will be an opportunity for us to make that much more concrete."
Making progress could be tough.
For instance, Russia and the U.S. oppose Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons. Moscow, however, thinks that the threat is less dire than Washington does, and it has used its United Nations Security Council veto to water down sanctions on Tehran for defying international demands to suspend its uranium enrichment program.
Russia supported the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and doesn't want to see a return of the Taliban. While it's allowed NATO to ship nonlethal supplies across its territory to U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, however, Moscow is widely thought to have encouraged the central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan to order the closure of a vital U.S. airbase.
Differences over other key issues are likely to persist, threatening to slow down or limit improvements in ties.
"Being realists, we understand too well the contradictions dividing us and have no illusions that they can be left behind easily," said Sergei Prikodko, Medvedev's foreign policy adviser.
These issues include Medvedev's assertion of a "privileged" sphere of Russian influence, a claim underlining the Kremlin's strong opposition to NATO membership for the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia, which fought a brief war with Moscow last summer.
"We don't recognize the idea of a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space," explained Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who's a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, a center-left research organization in Washington. "We also support the rights of independent nations to pursue their own foreign policy course."
It's unclear how Obama and Medvedev will deal with the Bush administration's plan to build an anti-missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic to defend against long-range missiles that Iran is developing.
Russia vehemently opposed the plan — a major reason for the deterioration in relations — claiming the system could be used to neutralize its own nuclear deterrent. While he's indicated that he'll shelve the plan, Obama hasn't explicitly said that he'll cancel it.
Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates also have indicated that improved cooperation by Russia on containing the Iranian nuclear program would reduce the need for the missile shield.
Medvedev, however, listed the proposal in his op-ed column as one of the "obstacles to good relations." He also cited further NATO expansion eastward and a dispute over a treaty that limits conventional military deployments in Europe.
Many experts hope that Medvedev won't make the U.S. missile defense plan an issue at the first meeting with Obama.
"Obama has said he will not proceed with missile defense systems unless they are proven effective," said Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association. "Russia should read the tea leaves and understand that Obama will not deploy" the system in the Czech Republic and Poland "because it has not been proven effective."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY