WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Eight years ago, George W. Bush said he gazed into Vladimir Putin’s soul.
Now U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are trying to forge a more pragmatic relationship than their predecessors did. That approach will be put to the test at their first summit next week in Moscow.
At stake is the credibility of the Obama administration’s pledge to “reset” U.S.-Russia relations, which sank to a post-Cold War low under Bush and Putin.
While the tone between Washington and Moscow may have improved since Obama took office in January, conciliatory language has yet to translate into a meaningful thaw -- and it seems unlikely to do so any time soon.
The talks do hold the promise of progress toward a new nuclear arms control deal under negotiation since Obama and Medvedev first met in April at a G20 summit in London.
But deep differences over a string of issues, including a proposed U.S. missile shield in Europe, Russia’s war against Georgia last year and how to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions, will limit any advances on other fronts, analysts say.
“The prospects are gloomy for a dramatic turnaround in this relationship,” said Andrew Kuchins, a Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “But they can start finding some common ground.”
Whatever Obama might achieve with Medvedev, he will also have to win over Putin, now Russia’s prime minister and still the dominant force on the country’s political scene. Obama is expected to meet both leaders during his July 6-8 visit.
“Pressing the reset button” has become Obama’s mantra with Russia, but coining a catch phrase is easier than actually repairing frayed ties.
Promising a fresh start, Obama and Medvedev agreed in April to move quickly to hammer out an accord for shrinking their countries’ nuclear arsenals, a pact that would replace the 1991 START I treaty that expires in December.
Both sides have been tight-lipped about preparatory talks but negotiators are expected to narrow differences enough to allow the leaders to possibly announce a framework for a deal.
Washington and Moscow have an interest in moving the process forward. For Obama, it represents one of the few “deliverables” expected from the summit.
For the Kremlin, the focus on arms control, reminiscent of when the United States and the Soviet Union dealt superpower to superpower, helps it reassert its role as a global player.
But expectations for a breakthrough remain low, especially given that Russia has sought to link a final accord with demands that Washington drop plans for an anti-missile system based in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Moscow opposes the missile shield as a threat to its security, while Washington insists it is intended to defend against a missile threat from Iran.
The Bush administration originated the idea, and Obama -- while not pushing it as hard as his predecessor did -- looks unlikely to abandon it without getting something in return.
Obama has insisted if Iran’s development of nuclear capability can be averted there will be no need for a shield, a suggested incentive for Russia to use leverage with Tehran.
Despite discord over missile defense, there are signs that both sides are looking for ways to recast relations.
The latest was a deal struck between NATO and Russia to restart security cooperation, a step toward rebuilding ties damaged by the war in Georgia. They failed, however, to bridge the gap over Georgia’s two breakaway regions that Russia has recognized as independent despite strong Western objections.
Tensions have lingered as Washington has made clear it will not accept Russia’s bid to reclaim a Soviet-style “sphere of influence” along its borders.
Nevertheless, Obama has given lower priority than the Bush administration to eventual NATO membership for former Soviet states Georgia and Ukraine, something Russia fiercely opposes.
Washington is mindful it can ill afford to alienate Russia, whose help is needed on the Iranian nuclear standoff. Moscow, a key trading partner and arms supplier to Iran, has often been reluctant to go along with sanctions on the Islamic republic.
No one expects a meeting of the minds in Moscow either, especially in the wake of Iran’s disputed presidential election. “We are not going to be on the same page about Iran,” said James Collins, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Another point of contention could be Obama’s expected meetings with opposition politicians and democracy activists as well as with former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Russian leaders had bristled at Bush administration accusations of “backsliding” on political reforms.
Also clouding the summit outlook: Russia’s stalled bid to join the World Trade Organization and Western concerns about its use of vast energy resources to pressure its neighbors.
Whatever decisions come out of the summit, the world will be watching how the Obama-Medvedev relationship evolves.
Obama has made clear it will be more businesslike than the way Bush, meeting Putin for the first time in 2001, famously said he had gotten a “sense of his soul.” Ultimately, their personal rapport did little to stem the slide in relations.
“Obama won’t be a look-into-your-soul kind of guy when it comes to diplomacy,” said James Goldgeier, an expert at George Washington University and the Council on Foreign Relations.
Additional reporting by Michael Stott in Moscow; editing by Chris Wilson
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