Flying to Italy Wednesday morning for the troubled G-8 summit, President Barack Obama departed Moscow after a very intriguing summit with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
This was the so-called "Reset Summit" to bring American/Russian relations out of the neo-Cold War depths they'd sunk to last year. It certainly succeeded at that, and at some other things as well, especially with regard to sharp reductions in nuclear weapons, aid for the US effort in Afghanistan, and a pullback on NATO expansion, a longtime thorn in the side of Russia. But other sticking points remained, on a US anti-missile shield and on Iran.
All amidst some notable intrigue, some of it generated from the Obama side.
Obama, by most accounts, has hit it off with Medvedev. Why not? They're about the same age, they're both lawyers, they both smile a lot, neither was in the military or intelligence. Quite unlike Putin, who has disparaged Obama for his inexperience, with Obama disparaging Putin for having "a Cold War mentality."
Obama spent most of his time with Medvedev. Joined by First Lady Michelle Obama, the American president had dinner Monday night with Medvedev and his wife, Svetlana Medvedeva.
But on Tuesday night, Obama was not available for Putin. Following a reception at the Kremlin, hosted by Medvedev, the Obamas repaired on their own to a glamorous nightclub with a view of the spectacular Moscow skyline. Night owl Putin was nowhere to be seen around Obama on either night. (The Obamas red-eyed it to Moscow on Sunday on Air Force One.)
Instead, Obama had a breakfast slot for Putin on Tuesday. Putin had Obama come to his sumptuous dacha in a forest outside Moscow. They discussed ballistic missile defense, and Russian dislike of America establishing bases in Poland and the Czech Republic, NATO expansion, and the question of containing Iran, Russia's decades-long friend of a sort (and centuries-long rival).
The two hour-plus meeting went long -- in part because much of it was taken up by a Putin monologue -- and Obama ended up late for his major address of the week at the New Economic School back in Moscow.
Having lectured Obama and made him late for the first time ever for one of his major addresses, Putin went over to visit a famous motorcycle club. Which is pointedly headed to a big motorcycle rally in Ukraine, a country which Putin is intent on keeping out of NATO.
Obama, as you can see in the footage, was well-received in his address, which the White House describes as the third major speech about America in a new global framework, following earlier addresses in Prague and Cairo.
But he was not exactly rapturously received, especially in contrast to other Obama speeches. The truth is that he was barely interrupted by applause between the beginning of his speech and its end, despite there being no shortage of applause lines in the speech.
Unlike most of the rest of Europe, Russia is hardly in the grips of Obamamania. He's certainly more popular than George W. Bush or John McCain, but that's damning with faint praise. Nor is he unpopular.
The Russian media didn't react with excitement to Obama's election. It was more in the vein of a positive neutrality. And while Medvedev has on occasion waxed enthusiastic about Obama, that more neutral media tone about Obama has continued, perhaps following the cue of Putin.
While Obama and his team seem intent on promoting the relationship with Medvedev, it's worth remembering why Medvedev is the president of Russia. That's because Putin decided against changing the Russian constitution to enable himself to continue in the presidency. Which he was certainly popular enough to do.
While there doesn't seem to be a cult of Medvedev in Russia, there is certainly a cult of Putin. For all his seeming humorlessness, Putin is a very effective politician, an iron fist in a velvet glove. Ruthless enough to raze the city of Grozny after Boris Yeltsin made him prime minister with the charge of winning the war in Chechnya, urbane in his Italian suits and movie star-style collection of watches.
As president, Putin did a virtual town hall meeting every year, an hours-long telecast of people from around the country asking him questions on live television. I watched two of these performances, staged though they may have been, and Putin was every bit as good as any American politician would be.
While Medvedev has shown some signs of independence, he doesn't have Putin's history or personality cult going for him. And he's depended on Putin for his rise. After all, he was Putin's chief of staff, and then a deputy prime minister picked by Putin. And Medvedev (chairman of Gazprom, one of the world's biggest energy companies), was picked for the presidency by Putin, running for the office as the candidate of the ruling United Russia party, which is chaired by, you guessed it, Vladimir Putin.
Medvedev seems to be the good cop to Putin's bad cop. He's one of the few in the ruling circle who does not have an intelligence or military background. Putin, the Cold War KGB colonel and head of the FSB security service before becoming Yeltsin's prime minister, seems to have the bigger and longer-standing power base.
So who came away with what?
** Both America and Russia scored with the agreement to cut nuclear arsenals by roughly a third and to encourage others not to develop nuclear weapons. The US looks more credible in its drive against nuclear proliferation by cutting its own nuclear arsenal. And Russia saves itself the expense and trouble of having to service aging weapons. Obama and Medvedev agreed to continue to work together to contain North Korea, Russia's historic ally.
** America scored with the announcement that Russia will allow US supplies, military equipment, and troops to be transported through Russia to the war in Afghanistan. The deal will allow 4500 flights a year through Russian airspace. Aside from a couple of test trips early in the year, then suspended for longer term talks, supplies for US forces have never transited through Russia before. And none of those trips involved American troops or weapons.
This is important as supply lines through Pakistan have come under serious attack in the past, and might again should the current Pakistani Army offensive against the Taliban fall short.
Both America and Russia have a deep interest in containing Islamic jihadism.
** And Russia scored with America agreeing to do more to suppress the Afghan drug trade. Afghanistan is a prime source for Russia's burgeoning drug problems.
** America scored again with Kyrgyzstan agreeing to continue allowing an important US base. In an amazing coincidence, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev on Monday signed an agreement allowing the US to continue using its existing base at Manas airport outside the capital city of Bishkek. (Which was named Frunze when mountainous Kyrgyzstan was a Soviet socialist republic, after one of the key founders of the Red Army.)
Manas air base is the central hub of aerial refueling for US and NATO aircraft operating over Afghanistan. It is also a hub for C-17 flights into Afghanistan.
For months, Kyrgyz leaders, apparently prompted by Putin, had said that the US would be evicted. There were several incidents causing friction in Kyrgyzstan's often tumultuous politics, but the main reason seemed to a Russian desire to get rid of the last US base left in Central Asia after 9/11, when Russia helped the US gain several bases there.
But now things are more copacetic between Russia and America, both countries are working together against Islamic jihadists, and the base remains. For a mere $60 million a year paid to Kyrgyzstan, triple the old rate.
** And Russia scored with Obama shifting US policy on NATO expansion. Following that long meeting with Putin, Obama altered US policy on NATO expansion in his Moscow address. The change comes around the 27-minute mark of the 31 minute address playable below.
After defending the territorial sovereignty of Georgia and Ukraine, an implicit criticism of Russia, Obama then shifts gears and says that new members of NATO must meet two new criteria: One, there must be popular support within the country for its accession to the NATO military alliance. Two, the country must have demonstrated military capability such that it is able to operate with existing NATO forces. Georgia and Ukraine almost certainly fail the test on both scores.
Putin has been very adamant for years against the policy of expanding NATO not only into Russia's traditional sphere of influence, but to its borders.
** What's left undone? The linked questions of the proposed US anti-missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic and the troublesome Islamic Republic of Iran. Obama essentially said that if Iran's nuclear weapons program is ended there is no real need for the anti-missile shield, which Russians have consistently said they believe is actually aimed at them.
Not that their missiles could not easily overwhelm any current US anti-missile system. What Russia apparently really dislikes is the idea of US bases in Poland and the Czech Republic, again constituting an encroachment into Russia's so-called "near abroad."
As for Iran, Russia can make things very difficult, if not impossible, for any air strikes by Israel or the US, by supplying Iran with state-of-the-art air defense systems, which it has not done.
Obama didn't give on the anti-missile bases and Russia didn't agree to do more to contain Iran.
On balance, a successful summit for Obama. But there's still much that can go south in the burgeoning new relationship between America and Russia.