Barack Obama urges Russia not to interfere in neighbouring states


(Moscow)  – Barack Obama today set out his vision for a new post-cold war world, and urged Russia not to interfere in neighbouring states and to move on “from old ways of thinking”.

In a keynote speech during his first trip to Russia as US president, Obama called on Moscow to stop viewing America as an adversary. The assumption that Russia and the US were eternal antagonists was “a 20th-century view” rooted in the past, he said.

Obama delivered a tough, though implicit, critique of Kremlin foreign policy, rejecting the claim it has “privileged interests” in post-Soviet countries. He said the 19th-century doctrine of spheres of influence and “great powers forging competing blocs” was finished.

“In 2009, a great power does not show strength by dominating or demonising other countries. The days when empires could treat sovereign states as pieces on a chessboard are over,” he said, speaking to graduates from Moscow’s New Economic School.

He added: “As I said in Cairo, given our interdependence any world order that tries to elevate one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. That is why I have called for a ‘reset’ in relations between the United States and Russia.

“America wants a strong, peaceful and prosperous Russia.”

Obama acknowledged that the US needed to play its part in bringing about a fresh start with Russia – “a great power”. And he paid tribute to the achievements of Russian writers and scientists, even managing to quote a line from Pushkin when he told the students: “Inspiration is needed in geometry just as much as in poetry.”

Crucially, though, Obama indicated that Washington would not tolerate another Russian invasion of Georgia. Russia is winding up full-scale military exercises next to the Georgian border amid ominous predictions that a second conflict in the Caucasus could erupt this summer.

On Monday Obama reaffirmed Georgia’s sovereignty – severely undermined by last year’s war and Moscow’s subsequent unilateral recognition of rebel-held Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. Today Obama defended “state sovereignty”, describing it as “a cornerstone of international order”.

He also said that Georgia and Ukraine had a right to choose their own foreign policy and leaders, and could join Nato if they wanted. Russia is deeply opposed to Ukraine’s and Georgia’s accession, and wants the White House to rule out their future membership. Today Obama responded by saying that Nato sought collaboration with Russia, not confrontation.

Earlier, Obama had breakfast with Vladimir Putin, the man whom most people regard as Russia’s real ruler. Last week Obama described Putin, Russia’s prime minister, as having “one foot in the past”. Today, however, he talked to him for two and a half hours – longer than planned and an admission of Putin’s continuing importance. The meeting, their first, was “excellent”, Obama said.

During his speech, however, Obama delivered a withering assessment of Putinism. Without mentioning Russia by name, Obama spelled out the US’s commitment to “universal values”. These included the rule of law, the equal administration of justice, and competitive elections – all things missing from Putin’s vertically managed authoritarian state.

Obama also stressed the importance of “independent media in exposing corruption at all levels of business and government”. Russia’s state-controlled TV has largely snubbed Obama’s first trip to Moscow, apparently on Kremlin orders, either failing to mention him at all or relegating him to the lower regions of the news schedule.

On Monday Obama and Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, agreed a framework document that would see both sides cut their nuclear arsenals by up to a third. Today Obama warned again of the dangers of nuclear proliferation, and urged Moscow to join with the US to stop Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and to end North Korea’s nuclear efforts.

He also reaffirmed that the US would only go ahead with its planned missile defence shield in central Europe – opposed by the Kremlin – if there was an Iranian nuclear “threat”. He said neither the US or Russia would benefit from a nuclear arms race in east Asia or the Middle East.

“In the short period since the end of the cold war we have already seen India, Pakistan and North Korea conduct nuclear tests. Without a fundamental change, do any of us truly believe that the next two decades will not bring about the further spread of nuclear weapons?” he asked.

“That is why America is committed to stopping nuclear proliferation, and ultimately seeking a world without nuclear weapons … And while I know this goal won’t be met soon, pursuing it provides the legal and moral foundation to prevent the proliferation and eventual use of nuclear weapons.”

The White House billed Obama’s Moscow address as a “major foreign policy speech”. It is the third in a series of major speeches that began in April in Prague, where he discussed disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation, and continued in Cairo, where he offered a fresh US approach to the Middle East and Muslim communities.

Later, Obama met the former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. He is due to meet business leaders and hold talks with civil society activists, including the opposition leader and former world chess champion Gary Kasparov.

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