Obama and Putin Signal a More Businesslike Path

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MOSCOW -- At times during their 12-minute joint appearance on Monday evening, Barack Obama and Vladimir V. Putin seemed locked in a frowning contest, their fingers laced tensely in their laps, eyes narrowed, lips pressed tightly together -- especially when they noted their continuing disagreement about Syria.

But ultimately it was not the furrowed brows but the hearty handshake at the end that best summed up the presidents' two-hour meeting on the sidelines of the Group of 8 conference in Northern Ireland -- a signal that relations between the United States and Russia have entered a more businesslike phase.

President Obama's remarks during the joint appearance were notable for what was left unsaid: not once did he criticize Mr. Putin over human rights or the rule of law. He did not mention the prosecution of opposition leaders in Russia, the criminal trials of rank-and-file political demonstrators or recent pressure on nonprofit groups.

Instead, Mr. Obama began by thanking Mr. Putin for Russia's cooperation in the investigation of the Boston Marathon bombing and ended by praising a deal with the Russian president to extend a joint program that has worked to dismantle chemical and other nonconventional weapons in the former Soviet Union.

"I think this is an example of the kind of constructive, cooperative relationship that moves us out of a cold war mind-set into the realm where, by working together, we not only increase security and prosperity for the Russian and American people, but also help lead the world to a better place," Mr. Obama said.

Russia had announced that it would not renew the program, called the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which was set to expire, because it gave the United States too big a role in Russia's military affairs. In recent talks, the countries agreed to limit the program's scope in Russia but expand it to try to eliminate similar weapons elsewhere.

"This will allow us to continue to work with Russia to secure nuclear materials not just in our countries, but also in third countries," Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, said in a briefing after the meeting.

Mr. Rhodes said that Mr. Obama raised the issue of human rights privately with Mr. Putin, but mainly to refute the allegation that the United States was somehow working against Mr. Putin or Russia.

"What you see in the public back-and-forth on these issues is the sense that our concern about human rights is intended to undermine the Russian government in some way," Mr. Rhodes said. "The president's point that he made is simply that the United States speaks out for certain things as a matter of principle; it's not targeted at any political agenda. And that's something we do all over the world, it's not unique to Russia."

The Obama administration's decision to focus on clinching deals rather than delivering messages was perhaps most evident in the announcement by Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin that they would create a working group on improving trade and investment to be led by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Prime Minister Dmitri A. Medvedev.

When Congress acted in December to grant Russia full status as a trading partner, an effort that was decades in the making, the announcement was overshadowed by another component of the legislation seeking to punish human rights abuses in Russia, and by the Russian retaliation, which included a ban on adoptions of Russian orphans by Americans.

Despite heavy pressure from members of Congress and prospective parents who had been in the middle of the adoption process when the ban took hold on Jan. 1, Mr. Obama made no mention of the adoption issue, stressing only the push for closer economic ties.

"We had extensive discussions about how we can further deepen our economic and commercial relationships," Mr. Obama said, adding, "I think we're poised to increase both trade and investment between our two countries. And that can create jobs and business opportunities, both for Russians and Americans."

The leaders also announced that they had reached a deal for greater cooperation on cybersecurity threats, including an exchange of practical and technical information on risks to critical computer systems. The agreement will include the establishment of a direct secure voice communications line between the United States cybersecurity coordinator in Washington and the deputy secretary of Russia's Security Council in Moscow.

Mr. Obama quickly came under criticism from human rights advocates who want to see the Kremlin pressured about a recent crackdown on political dissent and civil society groups.

David J. Kramer, the president of Freedom House, an advocacy group in Washington, said that Mr. Obama had sent a demoralizing message to rights advocates in Russia. "He hasn't uttered a single word about the worst deterioration in Russia's human rights situation since the breakup of the Soviet Union," Mr. Kramer said in a telephone interview. "I find that very troubling.

In this sense, the more transactional relationship is a victory for Mr. Putin, who has stressed that he will not tolerate meddling in Russia's domestic affairs.

But the decision by the White House also reflected a realpolitik understanding that attempts by others, including Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and former President George W. Bush, to put pressure on Mr. Putin have not resulted in any change.

"Think about it from the perspective of what your objective is and how you can accomplish that," said Samuel Charap, a senior fellow and Russia expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "We don't condition security cooperation on human rights and democracy," he said. "Does engaging extensively on these issues get you anywhere with Putin? I think we have a pretty strong track record that it usually gets you nowhere."

Mr. Obama has also made clear that he views further reductions in the American and Russian nuclear arsenals as a potential legacy issue, and one that should not fall victim to shorter-term political considerations.

Relations between the countries had soured significantly over the past 18 months, beginning with a torrent of anti-American rhetoric during Mr. Putin's 2012 presidential campaign. In an interview just last week with the Russia Today news network here, Mr. Putin repeated his assertion that the State Department had been supporting his political opponents, an allegation that Washington denies.

Cooperation on the investigation into the Boston Marathon bombing, including scrutiny of the two suspects, who had roots in Russia's Caucasus region, helped improve relations.

And though the two sides continue to disagree fiercely over Syria, the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, and Secretary of State John Kerry appear to be developing a relatively strong working relationship.

It was Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov, during a meeting in Moscow, who announced the effort to hold an international conference on Syria and to bring all sides to the negotiating table. Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin, while citing their differences, said Monday that remained their shared goal.

"Of course our opinions do not coincide," Mr. Putin said of the Syria issue. But he added, "We agreed to push the parties to the negotiating table."

Still, hints of continuing tensions were evident. Near the end of their appearance, Mr. Obama joked that they had discussed judo, one of Mr. Putin's favorite sports, and Mr. Obama's declining basketball skills, and had agreed that they were getting older. Mr. Putin quickly replied that Mr. Obama was trying to hustle him "with his statement that he is getting weaker."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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