As Obama Heads to Russia, the 'Reset' Faces Its First Test

When President Obama met Russian President Dmitry Medvedev for the first time last April, both men called for a new day in relations between the two countries. Obama said he wanted to push the "reset" button, while Medvedev called for an end to the "drift" in the U.S./Russian dynamic. They pledged to forge a more pragmatic relationship than their predecessors, George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, who bonded personally even as ties between Russia and the U.S. sank to new lows. Obama did not want to be "buddy buddy" with Medvedev, a senior administration official told reporters at the time. The White House, according to the official, wanted to forge something "more substantial," a rapport of "candor and frankness" that would produce real results.

As Obama prepares for his first visit to Russia next week, the boundaries of that new relationship will face its first real test. Obama and Medvedev are expected to announce some progress toward the renegotiation of a crucial arms-control treaty that aims to cut down on nuclear weapons stockpiles. But despite all the conciliatory talk these past few months, the two sides continue to face significant differences over several issues, including how to rein in Iran's nuclear ambitions and a proposed U.S. missile shield in Europe. In recent weeks, the Russians have suggested that Obama will not reach his goal of reducing nuclear arms unless he drops the U.S.'s missile defense plans. But on Wednesday, the White House signaled in some surprisingly tough talk that it would offer no such concessions on that issue or another hot topic for the Russians: a U.S.-backed push to add former Soviet states Ukraine and Georgia to NATO, a move Moscow strongly opposes.

Asked in a briefing what "reassurances" Obama might give Medvedev on those two issues, Michael McFaul, the president's top adviser on Russia, unloaded. "We're definitely not going to use the word reassure in the way we talk about these things," McFaul told reporters. "We're not going to reassure or give or trade anything with the Russians regarding NATO expansion or missile defense… We don't need the Russians." They would be no concessions on those issues "in the name of reset." McFaul insisted.

There is one area where the U.S. strongly needs the Russians: Iran. While the White House says it won't drop its missile defense plan, Obama has hinted that the shield wouldn't be needed if Iran's push to develop nuclear weapons can be stopped—a clear incentive for Moscow to intervene, though Obama insisted he was offering no "quid pro quo." But Russia remains hesitant to crack down on Iran, a key trading partner. Last month, Russia was one of the first countries to recognize the controversial reelection of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, even as others remained skeptical. But the U.S. sees some signs of hope there: last week, Russia signed on to a letter sent by the G8 foreign ministers ahead of next week's summit in Italy condemning the post-election violence in Iran. According to an aide, Obama was "gratified" at the role Russia played in finalizing the statement.

How does the White House hope to sway Russia? For one, administration officials say they hope to find some areas of agreement on efforts to prevent terrorism as well as energy and climate change. But Obama, just as he did in recent trips to Europe and the Middle East, will seek to capitalize on his international popularity by appealing directly to the Russian people. While there are lengthy sit-downs with Medvedev and Putin on his schedule, Obama also plans to meet with business and civic leaders in Moscow as a way to establish what an administration official described as a "direct relationship" with the Russian people, who tend to view Americans as adversaries.

In Moscow, Obama will deliver a major speech echoing his remarks in Cairo last month in which the president will talk about American values and its desire to have a better relationship with Russia. According to the White House, Obama's goal is to change the longtime perception among a majority of the Russian people that what's good for the U.S. is bad for Russia. "They think that our No. 1 objective in the world is to make Russia weaker, to surround Russia, to do things that make us stronger and Russia weaker," McFaul says. "I think what you're going to hear when President Obama is in Moscow is that that is not the way that he sees the relationship … It's not, in our view, a zero-sum game, that if it's two points for Russia it's negative two for us, but there are ways that we can cooperate to advance our interests and, at the same time, do things with the Russians that are good for them, as well."

But as the White House has learned in recent months, turning the page with the Russians won't be easy. It will take more than nice talk to produce the meaningful results that Obama wants and needs. He'll have to overcome decades of mistrust between the U.S. and the Russians--entrenched history that a so-called reset button won't easily clear away.