President Barack Obama, working to drastically reshape U.S. relations with a skeptical Russia, said Tuesday the two countries are not "destined to be antagonists."
"The pursuit of power is no longer a zero-sum game," Obama said, speaking in the Russian capital to graduates of the New Economic School but also hoping to reach the whole nation. "Progress must be shared."
Obama used his speech to further define his view of the United States' place in the world and, specifically, to argue that his country shares compelling interests with Russia.
"Let me be clear: America wants a strong, peaceful and prosperous Russia," he declared.
Obama's upbeat comments came on the second day of his summit in Russia, where polls show people are wary of the United States and taking a skeptical measure of Obama himself. Earlier Tuesday, Obama held private breakfast talks with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at Putin's country home outside Moscow. The atmosphere seemed cordial, and both voiced hope for improved relations between Washington and Moscow.
In his speech, Obama said the interests of Russia and the United States generally coincide in five key areas: halting the spread of nuclear weapons, confronting violent extremists, ensuring economic prosperity, advancing the rights of people and fostering cooperation without jeopardizing sovereignty.
But he also sprinkled in challenges to Russia on its own soil, particularly in the area of democracy. U.S. officials are wary of Russia's increasingly hard-line stand on dissent.
"By no means is America perfect," Obama said. But he also said: "Independent media have exposed corruption at all levels of business and government. Competitive elections allow us to change course. ... If our democracy did not advance those rights, I as a person of African ancestry wouldn't be able to address you as an American citizen, much less a president."
Obama said the U.S. will not try to impose any kind of government on another country. But he argued for democratic values "because they are moral, and also because they work."
On Georgia and Ukraine — two nations that have sought NATO membership to the chagrin of neighboring Russia — Obama tried a diplomatic touch. He defended the steps nations must take to join the alliance, adding, "NATO seeks collaboration with Russia, not confrontation."
The U.S. and Russia have plenty of significant differences, but Obama suggested one of the biggest problems is fixable: deeply rooted and harmful assumptions from another era.
"There is the 20th century view that the United States and Russia are destined to be antagonists, and that a strong Russia or a strong America can only assert themselves in opposition to one another," Obama said. He dismissed that as inaccurate.
Obama said a genuine resetting of relations between the countries must go beyond the governments and include a partnership between peoples.
On the economy, Obama prodded nations to follow the rule of law.
"People everywhere should have the right to do business or get an education without paying a bribe," he said. "That is not an American idea or a Russian idea; that's how people and countries will succeed in the 21st century."
Obama's meeting with Putin lasted two hours — about 30 minutes longer than planned. They met a day after Obama held talks with President Dmitry Medvedev and they agreed that the two countries would seek by year's end to cut their nuclear stockpiles by up to a third. Obama told Putin he thought he had had "excellent discussions" on Monday with Medvedev.
But Obama also said he recognizes that "we may not agree on everything."
Medvedev, Putin's hand-picked successor, is the one getting the bulk of Obama's attention and negotiation time. All sides know Putin still holds much power, too, but Obama sought Monday to cast his meetings with both men as simply reaching out to the whole government.
The Putin session started the second day of Obama's Moscow mission. The goal: Engage the Russian people and persuade them that their interests coincide with those of Americans.
The challenge is more daunting in this country, where Obama is viewed with much greater skepticism than elsewhere and where the Russian people are wary of U.S. power.
Obama hoped to change minds with a speech that White House aides had billed in advance as a pillar of his foreign policy — on the same level with his call for a nuclear-free world while in Prague, or his outreach to the Muslim world in a speech in Cairo.
The matter of democracy is closely watched because the U.S. has watched warily as Russia's control on dissent and the press has only stiffened in recent years. The country is considered one of the most dangerous places for investigative journalists to work.
Obama was also meeting Tuesday with former Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev; meeting again with Medvedev at the Kremlin; join Medvedev in taking part in a summit of U.S. and Russian business leaders; and meeting a diverse collection of civil society leaders from both countries — health experts, environmentalists, reporters, human rights advocates — who will be holding their own summit to re-engage bilateral cooperation.
In the late afternoon, Obama was to meet with Russian opposition leaders.