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U.S. and Russia turn a corner

Presidents Obama and Medvedev have set about rebuilding what will be a crucial 21st century relationship for both.

Barack Obama meets his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, at the U.S. ambassador's residence in London Apr. 1, 2009 ahead of a G20 summit. Russia and the United States will pursue a new deal to cut nuclear warheads, the presidents said Wednesday, making good on a pledge to rebuild relations from a post-Cold War low. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

WASHINGTON – Wednesday’s productive meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was a significant step toward repairing a relationship that, due to bruised Russian pride and American inattention, had fallen into disrepair.

“It was a corner-turning meeting,” said former U.S. Senator Gary Hart, who chaired a recent commission on relations between the two countries. “I have felt for a long time that Russia was going to be very, very important to the United States in the 21st century in a whole lot of ways — counter-terrorism, energy — and that we ought to have close ties to them and help move them to modernity.

“And it looks like the Obama administration will be the ones to do that,” Hart said.

By harvesting some low-hanging but important diplomatic fruit, the two leaders set out to rebuild relations, hoping that immediate accomplishment can pave the way for progress on knottier, more divisive, issues.

“The relations between our countries have been adrift over the past years,” Medvedev acknowledged, when the two leaders met with the press. “As President Obama has said, they were drifting, and drifting in some wrong directions.”

Like everyone else in the world of foreign policy, Medvedev couldn’t help but succumb to a metaphor that’s become a cliché: “The time has come to 'reset.' ”

Just what will “reset” mean?

First off, is the low-hanging fruit. The two presidents said their nations will initiate a new round of strategic arms talks, designed to cut the number of nuclear warheads in each of their arsenals to well below 2000. The current Start treaty, which governs arms limits, is due to expire in December, and the two sides hope to report progress when Obama visits Russia, as they announced, in July.

“There is an awful lot of that to be ironed out, and it drags on,” Hart said. But, he added, “I would be surprised if they don’t have (basic agreement on) the numbers and types of weapons systems” to announce during Obama’s trip.

Next up are issues of more difficulty, like nuclear proliferation. Both nations are leery of Islamic fundamentalism, and concerned about Iran’s nuclear program. But though their interests align, the two countries have differed on how to meet the danger, with America favoring a more robust international response. They appear to have compromised in London, with the U.S. recognizing Iran’s need for a domestic nuclear power program and the Russians, in return, pledging to work harder to limit the Iranian effort to civilian uses.