President Barack Obama called on Tuesday for Russia to forge a true partnership with the United States, promoting democracy and the rule of law but avoiding direct criticism of the Kremlin.
Obama was speaking after a first meeting with Russia's most powerful figure, Vladimir Putin, whom he had upset with pre-trip comments accusing the prime minister of keeping one foot in the past. U.S. officials called the talks very successful.
In a carefully calibrated speech billed by the White House as a major set piece, Obama lavishly praised the achievements of Russian history and culture and said Washington wanted to see a strong, peaceful and prosperous partner in Russia.
But he condemned in general terms corruption and authoritarianism -- ills which critics say afflict Russian business and political life.
People everywhere should have the right to do business or get an education without paying a bribe, Obama said. That is not an American or a Russian idea -- that's how people and countries will succeed in the 21st century.
Obama's remarks chimed with those of a delegation of visiting U.S. chief executives, who have complained that the weak rule of law and rampant corruption in Russia are holding back trade and investment.
Despite the complaints, U.S. companies announced a series of business deals to coincide with the visit. The biggest was Boeing's pledge to spend $27 billion in Russia over the next 30 years, most of it buying titanium, a metal used in aircraft.
Opinion polls have consistently shown Russian hostility to the United States and the audience of students at the New Economic School were muted in their response to Obama, listening to his words in silence and applauding politely at the end.
The reaction, along with muted media coverage, formed a sharp contrast to the rapturous receptions Obama got in Cairo and Prague during previous big foreign policy speeches.
Obama tried to look really nice and politically correct when speaking about Russia, especially when speaking about democracy and free elections, said Danila, a first year student in the audience who refused to give his last name.
He should know as U.S. president that we have none of those.
Obama later returned to the Kremlin for a meeting with Medvedev, who said he had watched the U.S. leader's speech on television. It was a systemic outline of relations between the United States and Russia on a number of issues, Medvedev said, but did not comment further.
LOW PROFILE IN MEDIA
Addressing the delicate issue of Russia's unusual dual leadership, Obama told Medvedev he had a good conversation with the prime minister (Putin) and I think his approach to the issues is very similar to yours.
Obama has sought to mend fences with Putin, Russia's most powerful politician, after upsetting him with a pre-trip interview suggesting Putin had one foot stuck in the days of the Cold War. The two met for two hours at Putin's forest residence outside Moscow.
Obama opened their meeting praising Putin for extraordinary work; but Putin avoided eye contact with Obama and looked at the floor as he made opening remarks, saying there had been periods of greyish relations between the two nations.
A senior U.S. administration official said afterwards that Putin and Obama had a very interesting and open discussion which had formed the basis of a good relation upon which they can build, though the two leaders had disagreed on some issues.
Obama was scheduled later to attend a business summit in Moscow and to meet representatives of Russia's embattled political opposition and non-governmental organizations.
At the summit, Russia and U.S. business leaders traded accusations of protectionism while U.S. oil majors called on Moscow to make foreign investment easier.
Obama's overall message to the students was conciliatory but offered no specific initiatives beyond a call for the two former Cold War superpowers to unite behind common values.
On the fundamental issues that will shape this century, Americans and Russians share common interests that form a basis for cooperation, he added.
Obama's speech was not shown live on Russia's main state-controlled television channels, appearing only on a cable news channel. Broadcast media, who mostly take their cue from the Kremlin, have given generally low-profile coverage to Obama.
Obama is on the second day of a visit to Russia intended to reset relations between the world's two biggest holders of nuclear weapons following a period of tension and argument.
This must be more than a fresh start between the Kremlin and the White House, Obama said. It must be a sustained effort among the American and Russian people to identify mutual interests, and to expand dialogue and cooperation.
Christopher Granville of Trusted Sources Research in London commented: This is reminiscent of the type of rhetoric we were familiar with during the Clinton era in the 1990s, of turning a new page, of a new partnership with Russia.