The octogenarian Republican is an improbable go- between to push the diplomatic line of a young Democratic president. But here he was in Moscow on Friday: Henry Kissinger, the architect of Cold War detente with the Soviet Union, meeting informally with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to try to smooth over a new generation of animosities between their two countries.
Kissinger led a team of prominent former U.S. officials in meetings in Moscow this week who were acting on their own but echoing the message of cooperation from an Obama administration that has pledged to “reset” relations that have become tense in recent years. And the young Russian president, still regarded by many observers as an apprentice to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, spoke encouragingly of efforts to end the acrimony.
“This surprising term ‘reset’ will, I hope, reflect the essence of the changes we would like to see,” Medvedev said. “We are counting on a reset. We hope it takes place.”
His relatively passive remarks reflected the prevailing Russian contention that relations have soured because of U.S. belligerence and that the onus is on Washington to soften its behavior.
Kissinger, who also met with Putin, assured reporters that he’d found ample ground for cooperation. “I’m happy to report that the differences were not so remarkable and the agreements were considerable,” he said.
The Nixon-era secretary of State was joined on the trip by other prominent officials from previous administrations, including former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, former Defense Secretary William Perry and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.
The White House said the group had not been sent by President Obama. “They’re private citizens and not there at the behest of the White House,” said an official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But they did inform the White House beforehand.”
A foreign policy realist, Kissinger is an advocate of finding accommodation with the Russians and setting aside tensions that sharpened during George W. Bush’s presidency.
The U.S. and Russia have clashed recently over proposed missile defense systems. Under the Bush administration, the U.S. began plans for a missile shield based in Poland and the Czech Republic that was intended, officials said, to deflect the threat of Iranian weapons. Moscow sees the plan as Western military infringement on the edge of its territory and has protested vigorously.
Obama has already sent a measure of relief to Russian leaders by signaling a willingness to consider scrapping the planned bases.
In exchange, however, the United States wants Russian cooperation on two strategically sensitive spots: Iran and Afghanistan. U.S. officials are hopeful that Moscow will use its commercial and strategic ties with Tehran to dissuade Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability.
Russia has also begun to allow NATO supplies to pass through its territory en route to U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan. And Moscow has indicated it could offer additional help as the United States raises its troop levels in the war in Afghanistan.
But the question of regional influence remains a contentious issue. Medvedev has said that Russia expects to have “privileged” influence over the countries and territories of the former Soviet Union, and many Russians are deeply angered by U.S. support for pro-Western leaders in Ukraine and Georgia.
Earlier this year, the impoverished Central Asian state of Kyrgyzstan accepted billions of dollars in aid from Russia and, in what appeared to be a quid pro quo, ordered the closure of a U.S. base used to support the war in nearby Afghanistan.
The tensions have raised anticipation for a meeting between Obama and Medvedev on the sidelines of next month’s G-20 summit in London. On Friday, Medvedev said he was looking forward to the encounter.
“Many issues have accumulated in recent years that should be discussed,” he said.
Still, Russian officials are now suggesting publicly that relations might brighten under Obama. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters Friday that “the low point of this period of chill in our relations is behind us.”
Paul Richter and Christi Parsons of our Washington bureau contributed to this report.