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Politics could dominate the Obama-Medvedev business summit

The official focus of Dmitry Medvedev's trip to the US is to improve Moscow's business ties to Washington. But on Thursday the Russian president and Barack Obama will have to tackle some hot political issues as well.

President Barack Obama with Russian president Dmitry Medvedev in Prague Thursday, April 8, 2010

The new START treaty is a symbol for improved US-Russian ties

The talking points have been agreed upon by Russian and American emissaries way before President Medvedev's embarked on his trip to the US. "Let's talk about business and leave politics aside, just for once," could be the joint US-Russian slogan for Medvedev's visit.

Or as US undersecretary of state for economics, energy and agriculture, Robert Hormats, put it recently in an interview: "We've made progress on political and security issues of late and now we have a chance to make a parallel progress on some very important economic issues, an economic reset."

But despite Medvedev's business heavy intinerary that includes meetings with executives from Google and Boeing, he and President Barack Obama won't be able to simply ignore politics during their summit on Thursday:

"They will have on their plate at the meeting in Washington a lot of practical issues from foreign and security topics, Kyrgyzstan, the START treaty, Iran sanctions, up to very concrete trade and economic relations," says Annette Heuser, executive director of the Bertelsmann Foundation in Washington.

Kyrgyzstan crisis

The violence and ethnic unrest in Kyrgyzstan, the only country, in which both the US and the Russians have military bases, have quickly emerged as top strategic priority for Washington and Moscow. For the US, its air base in Manas serves as an important logistical hub for Afghansistan. Russia views the country as belonging to its sphere of influence and has just recently reiiterated its stance that the US should close its base there.

While both Russia and the US are monitoring developments in Kyrgyzstan closely, Washington would like Moscow to take the lead role should the conflict escalate there.

"It will be interesting to see whether President Obama presses President Medvedev to bring in forces to Kyrgyztan in order to suppress the civil war there that is about to start," says Christian Tuschhoff, an expert on US security policy at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. "On the other hand there is no such eagerness on the Russian side, simply because the Russians don't want to become involved."

Unlike the conflict with Georgia, where the US strongly opposed Russia's military response and Moscow accused Washington of supporting the Georgian government, Kyrgyztan actually provides an opportunity for both countries to cooperate, argues Heuser:

US Air Force aircraft seen at the US Gansi air base located at Manas airport

The air base in Kyrgyzstan is strategically important for the US

"Moscow had made it crystal-clear it will not enter the country without a UN mandate and if the situation is not improving it is very likely an option that the United States would also back."

Success on START and Iran sanctions

This would tie in nicely with the recent progress made by the US and Russia on other fronts, such as Moscow's support for increased sanctions against Iran and the new START treaty. Without Russia's agreement, the US couldn't have pushed through tougher UN-backed sanctions against Tehran. And the START treaty was an important step toward Obama's broader vision of a world without nuclear weapons.

"One has to acknowledge that the START treaty is the most visible achievement between the United States and Russia to come from a rhetorical reset to a practical reset," says Heuser.

But despite these recent successes in Russian-American relations, one shouldn't underestimate the many practical hurdles and strategic differences still remaining between both partners. For instance, it is all but certain whether President Obama will manage to get the necessary votes for the ratification of the START treaty in the US Senate. To pass the treaty, Obama needs a two-third majority in the senate. But since the Democrats can count on only 59 of the 67 votes needed, the president will have to convince eight Republicans to support the treaty.

"He may be actually able to use that in order to get some cosmetic concessions out of Medvedev that he can then present to Republicans in the Senate and say there is another reason to vote for the ratification of the start treaty," says Tuschhoff. "But it will be a tough game in the US Senate no matter what."

Improved view of Russia

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits an enrichment site in Natanz in 2007

The US would have wanted even harsher sanctions against Iran

Similarly, devil is also in the detail on sanctions against Iran. While Moscow after long consulations went along with stronger sanctions, Washington would actually have prefered to be much tougher on Tehran. But since Russia and China made it clear that they wouldn't back more punitive measures, the US went to the UN with the watered-down sanctions deal.

Despite the many remaining obstacles, the relationship between the US and Russia has improved substantially compared to the Bush era. This new phase in bilateral ties, says Heuser, is also reflected in the polls:

"It's quite interesting if you look at the new Pew Global Attitudes Survey in 2010, it shows that not only Russia is seen as a more friendly nation by the the so-called West - Europe and the United States - but also its president has much more positive ratings than those enjoyed in the previous years by his predecessor Putin for instance."

Author: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge

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