Obama and Russian President Medvedev display strong partnership with ‘burger summit’

Jon Ward Contributor
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President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev get along like best buddies, just as their predecessors George Bush and Vladimir Putin did. But in an improvement over the atmospherics of their predecessors, the warmth between the current leaders is actually translating into positive results.

Obama hosted Medvedev in Washington Thursday, taking him out for a burger, fielding questions from reporters during a joint White House news conference, and then walking together off the White House grounds to a meeting at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce with American and Russian business leaders.

What was immediately dubbed the “burger summit” on Twitter was a remarkably warm meeting between the two men, marked by an easy familiarity following many hours spent in different settings together.

Medvedev gave a vague and somewhat awkward compliment to Americans when describing his trip with Obama to Ray’s Hell Burger, just across the Potomac River in Arlington, Va. The Russian called it “an interesting place that is typically American.”

“Probably it is not quite healthy but it is very tasty and you can feel the spirit of America,” he said.

Obama declared that he and Medvedev had achieved the repair of relations between their respective countries, which was a prominent goal of Obama’s upon taking office.

“We’ve succeeded in resetting our relationship,” he said, citing their work together to mutually reduce their nuclear arms arsenals, Russia’s support for United Nations sanctions on Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and the Kremlin’s help with setting up a supply route through Russia to U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The Obama-Medvedev relationship began amicably enough, but the two men made a point of avoiding the overt displays of comraderie that marked Bush and Putin’s meetings over the years. Bush’s comment in 2001 that he got a sense of Putin’s soul and found him “trustworthy” became increasingly ironic as Putin’s regime became more and more antagonistic of the U.S. during Bush’s second term, culminating with the Kremlin’s invasion of Georgia in August 2008.

Obama and Medvedev see themselves as more pragmatic and of a younger, more media-savvy generation. But despite their best efforts to keep things strictly business, their meetings have taken on the same friendly feeling that characterized the Bush-Putin pow wows.

The summit followed several months of increased cooperation between the U.S. and Russia, mostly on issues of national security. Obama and Medvedev sought to build on that foundation to focus on what Obama called an agenda of “shared prosperity.”

Toward that end, Obama said the U.S. would be working in the coming months to help Russia achieve its long sought goal of joining the World Trade Organization.

“Russia belongs in the WTO,” Obama said, promising that remaining sticking points over a disagreement on U.S. chicken imports to Russia, which is the largest market for U.S. poultry farmers, will be resolved this year.

Medvedev, who visited Twitter’s headquarters in Silicon Valley on Wednesday, said Russians should not have a “swagger” about improving its business sector.

“We have something to learn in terms of organizing business,” he said.

The two men mentioned but did not dwell on areas of disagreement: Russia’s continued occupation of two breakaway territories in the former Soviet bloc nation of Georgia, and the issue of human rights and political freedom inside Russia.

Obama, who fielded two questions from U.S. reporters, commented again on his change of command in Afghanistan, following yesterday’s resignation under pressure by Gen. Stanley McChrystal over comments made by him and his aides in a Rolling Stone article.

Obama cautioned that the summer 2011 deadline he has set for beginning a drawdown of troops in Afghanistan is not the end of military operations, nor does it mean the end of U.S. support for Afghanistan’s government.

“We didn’t say we’d be switching off the lights and closing the door behind us,” Obama said.

As for Gen. David Petraeus, who Obama has placed in command pending Senate approval, the president said “we will not miss a beat because of the change of command.”

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Jon Ward