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Obama lands in Moscow with challenging agenda

US President Barack Obama says he wants to “reset” ties with Russia during a summit in Moscow – but he faces a host of challenges, including a new disarmament treaty and the thorny issue of Iran.


US President Barack Obama has landed in Moscow for what is expected to be a major test of his foreign relations skills – hitting “reset” on relations with Russia. Obama started the visit on an optimistic note, saying cooperation could lead to "extraordinary progress".


He is to hold a joint press conference with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev later on Monday.


After Russia invaded Georgia last summer, relations with the US and the West sank to their lowest point since the Cold War.


As several experts have noted, Russia viewed its invasion as a defensive move, in response to Western expansion in the region.


According to Hall Gardner, International Relations professor at the American University of Paris and author of “Averting Global War”, “three enlargements” were taking place at the same time – EU expansion into former Soviet space, continued NATO expansion after the end of the Cold War, and the US missile shield in Eastern Europe.


These “raised Russian suspicions”, and Russia needed to “counter threats”, he says.



Nuclear threats


President Obama will need to dispel some of these fears in Russia, if he is to secure the agreements he will be looking for.


The first is a continuation of a treaty agreeing to reduce both countries' nuclear arsenals. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, negotiated in 1991, will expire in December. Officials from both countries are furiously working on a replacement, with media agency Interfax reporting that a new text has already been agreed upon.


Gardner feels that both countries want to reduce the number of warheads they currently hold, and can essentially agree to “about 1,500” warheads.


Secondly, Obama needs to find some common ground with Russia on the thorny topic of Iran.


Russia has been supplying nuclear material and weapons to Iran, which it does not view as a threat in the same way as the West.


But there is hope for agreement here too – “the Russians [had] been threatening to sell S300 anti-missile systems to Iran” but they recently agreed to not deliver those systems, says Gardner.


“That’s already a sign that the Russians want to put some pressure on Iran,” he said.





One positive point is sure to be Afghanistan.


Russia recently agreed to allow the US to fly military supplies for Afghanistan through Russian territory. Earlier, the US could only transport non-military supplies across by rail.


According to Gardner, “destabilisation of Afghanistan would be disastrous for Russia” too, with increased Taliban infiltration across Central Asia.


Russia’s own history in Afghanistan makes it sensitive to the possibility of an extremist takeover there.


Obama and Medvedev are expected to discuss this at a joint press conference later today.



Russian politics


But Obama faces one last challenge – striking a firm stance on Russia’s internal politics, without upsetting his hosts.


He has already talked tough on Putin and Medvedev, who have cracked down on political dissent in Russia. Opposition leaders in Russia hope that Obama will support more open politics and business in Russia – which would also aid US business interests there.


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