MOSCOW (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev expect to make progress on arms cuts and Afghanistan at a Kremlin summit on Monday but the rest of Obama’s first visit as president may be more difficult.
During two days of talks, officials say Obama will spur negotiations on reducing U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals and win the Kremlin’s consent to ship weapons to NATO forces in Afghanistan across Russian territory.
Obama will also meet business chiefs and listen to the country’s embattled democratic opposition. But he faces a harder task in trying to achieve his aim of a “reset” in overall relations between Washington and Moscow.
Ties hit their worst level since the Cold War last year after Russia sent troops into neighboring Georgia, a U.S. ally, triggering fierce condemnation from Washington.
Medvedev has said he is “moderately optimistic” about Obama’s visit but the two sides are still deeply divided over U.S. plans to set up an anti-missile system in central Europe, something Russia says threatens its security.
This, as well as Russian resentment at NATO expansion into the former Soviet Union, could yet cast a cloud over the talks.
A poll released on the eve of Obama’s arrival showed the depth of Russian distrust of the United States. The University of Maryland survey found 75 percent of Russians believed the U.S. abused its greater power and only two percent had “a lot of confidence” Obama would do the right thing in world affairs.
Medvedev underlined the differences on the eve of Obama’s arrival, saying in an interview released on Sunday that the United States would only get a full arms control treaty with Moscow if it dropped unilateral plans for missile defense.
“If we talk about missile defense, then we must refer to global action to protect ourselves from countries which actually pose a threat today,” Medvedev told Italian media.
Obama, in a pre-trip interview with a Russian opposition newspaper, rejected a link between arms control and missile defense but he said he would discuss cooperation on the latter issue with Medvedev.
“If we combine our assets on missile defense, the United States, Russia and our allies will be much safer than if we go it alone,” Obama told Novaya Gazeta. “I see a great potential here.”
Although the Russians said on Sunday that talks on the framework of an arms deal were still going on, a White House official said on Sunday evening that he expected an announcement on Monday when the two leaders meet at the Kremlin.
The two will then continue to a dinner with their wives at Medvedev’s residence just outside Moscow.
“We think the summit will register progress toward an agreement,” Gary Samore, the White House Coordinator for Weapons of Mass Destruction, told reporters in Moscow.
Obama also faces an awkward first meeting on Tuesday morning with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Russia’s most powerful politician, after publicly criticizing him last week.
Obama, in a pre-trip interview, said Putin still had one foot mired in Cold War thinking and compared him unfavorably with Medvedev, Putin’s chosen successor as president.
Putin hit back quickly, saying Russians “are standing firmly on both feet and always look to the future.”
In an indication of the strained atmosphere, Russia’s Kremlin-controlled main television channels — the chief source of news for most Russians — have played down Obama’s visit.
Sunday’s evening’s main Channel One news show didn’t mention Obama in its main headlines and opened with a lengthy report on Medvedev exhorting Russians to save energy. Rival channel Vesti began its show talking about the death of a folk singer.
“This is being played as essentially a low-key visit that shows the American leadership’s respect for the Russian leadership,” Dmitry Trenin, head of the Moscow Carnegie Center think-tank, said ahead of Obama’s arrival.
“This is not some star coming to town.”
The Other Russia and Solidarity opposition movements announced plans for a protest rally in central Moscow on Monday evening to coincide with Obama’s visit.
State-controlled media routinely ignore opposition groups but Kremlin critics are due to meet Obama on Tuesday afternoon as part of Obama’s effort to engage a broader range of Russians.
Garry Kasparov, a former chess champion who leads Other Russia, said Obama’s offer of a meeting showed that Washington was no longer willing to ignore democracy and human rights to cut deals with Moscow.
Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Guy Faulconbridge and Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Jon Boyle