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Washington prepares for Russian president’s visit

Three years ago, in the waning months of the Bush administration, Russian leader Vladimir Putin denounced the United States in a fiery speech at Red Square that compared U.S. policies to those of the Third Reich.

Last month, Russia invited U.S. and allied troops to Red Square for the first time to march in honor of their victorious alliance in World War II.

As the Obama administration prepares for the visit Thursday of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, officials are citing improved relations with Russia as one of their big foreign policy successes. Others, however, say the improvement is mostly in tone rather than substance.

Although U.S. officials have hailed Russian support for new United Nations penalties against Iran over its nuclear program, skeptics say Moscow did what it has in the past: water down the sanctions before voting for them. Russia has agreed to a new nuclear arms treaty with the United States, but a deep gulf remains on missile defense.

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And Russia’s decision to allow U.S. military flights to Afghanistan through its airspace probably would have come even without the warming, they say.

“We can’t speak about a real success yet,” said Vladimir Dvorkin, a retired Russian general and chief researcher at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow. “What we hear so far are just general declarations.”

A top Pentagon official, speaking last week at the Nixon Center think tank in Washington last week, said that though there had been progress, major challenges remained.

“It’s only just the beginning of a long and difficult process,” said Alexander Vershbow, who was U.S. ambassador to Moscow from 2001 to 2005, and now serves as assistant secretary of Defense for international security affairs.

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During his election campaign, President Obama accused the Bush administration of badly mismanaging U.S.-Russian relations, and made a “reset” of ties a major foreign policy goal.

This year, amid setbacks in Afghanistan and the Middle East, the administration has especially trumpeted its Russia policy.

U.S. officials exulted at Russia’s vote for sanctions at the U.N. Security Council on June 9, portraying it as a major shift in the alignment of world powers on Iran’s nuclear program.

But Moscow’s support came at a cost. Under pressure from both Russia and China, the administration and European allies agreed to water down the resolution. And at the eleventh hour, the United States quietly dropped sanctions against four Russian military enterprises found to have transferred banned arms and technology to Iran.

Critics point out that Moscow balked at three previous U.N. sanctions resolutions, then voted for them once their language was diluted.

And Russia may stand in the way of the West’s next moves on Iran. The United States and its allies have begun to impose additional individual sanctions, but Moscow is worried about damaging its business ties to Iran and says there should be no further punishment.

The Russian Foreign Ministry on Thursday called the U.S. and European Union sanctions announced last week “unacceptable” and threatened to withdraw its support for international efforts against Iran.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told Congress on Thursday that Russia’s pursuit of business deals with Iran, while cooperating to put pressure on Iran’s nuclear program, was “schizophrenic.”

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Some of the mixed signals may be a result of internal Kremlin dynamics: In Washington as well as Moscow, analysts debate the balance of power between Putin, who has the post of prime minister, and his protege, Medvedev, who was elected president when Putin was termed out.

Medvedev’s language has been more accommodating, but Putin’s has appeared to soften recently, as well. The global financial crisis has upended the energy economy that had enabled Russia to defy the West. On Thursday, Medvedev, who will also visit Silicon Valley, wants to discuss American help on the Russian economy.

Still, it is unclear how much power Medvedev wields, or how closely he and Putin coordinate their messages.

The Obama administration portrays the nuclear arms agreement struck in April as a major milestone. Yet the treaty doesn’t require Russia to eliminate any nuclear weapons, since its aging arsenal has already shrunk below the specified ceiling. And Russia would like to force the United States to limit the size of its missile defense systems, fearing that they could overwhelm Moscow’s arsenal.

U.S. officials have been delighted by Russia’s willingness to open an air corridor to Afghanistan. But the deal also serves Russia’s interests, giving it leverage over the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s military operations in Afghanistan and also satisfying its need to help stabilize its turbulent neighbor.

Obama, apparently recognizing his limited leverage, has done little to resist Russia’s continued presence in separatist regions of Georgia. In this environment, the “reset” looks perishable.

“Thus far I think all of the accomplishments are very easily reversible if the political tone of the relationship were to change,” said Paul J. Saunders, executive director of the Nixon Center and a former State Department official.

paul.richter@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow contributed to this report.


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