Many Russians Believe Obama Will Warm Moscow-Washington Relations

(CBS)
"America is a beautiful country – very picturesque – but it has been unlucky with its leaders lately," said a man dressed as Ded Moroz (a Russian Santa Claus) interviewed by CBS News in downtown Moscow. "It has been run by the wrong people."

Today may really be the day of the big change – with Barack Obama taking office in the White House. Many Russians believe that under President Obama, U.S.-Russia relations which have reached their post-Cold War low should pick up.

"After Barack Obama becomes president, he should establish better contacts and improve ties with Russia," says Maxim, a young boy from the Russian city of Yaroslavl, carrying a McDonald's paper bag shortly before visiting Red Square. "Maybe he should come to Russia and do some sightseeing – so that he would fall in love with my country."

(CBS)
"I would advise President Obama to telephone our President Medvedev and arrange a meeting between them," adds Vitaly, also from Yaroslavl. "Once that meeting is held, the two could do something together to change the world for the better."

Indeed, it seems that truth does come out of the mouths of babes – Russian officials have recently been talking most favorably of the future of the bilateral relations, significantly toning down their anti-American rhetoric which has for years been Moscow's trademark in foreign relations.

Last November, President Medvedev made no mention at all of Mr. Obama's victory when giving his State of the Nation address the day after the U.S. elections, claiming he "forgot." The Russian President seems to be showing considerably more interest in the inauguration.

"Naturally, we have been following this event very carefully," President Medvedev said, adding that he wanted "U.S.-Russia relations to develop intensely and constructively in all areas."

This view was echoed by Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov who confirmed Moscow's readiness for a thaw in the bilateral relations.

"Like many other countries, we want to actively work together with the new U.S. administration," Mr. Lavrov said. "We are open to equal dialogue. And we are hopeful that the advantages of this cooperation will outweigh any desire to play a political game to again deter Russia."

In a rare demonstration of amiability towards Washington, the Kremlin ordered activists of a pro-government youth movement Mestniye (Locals) to welcome Obama's inauguration.

On Tuesday, January 20, about 50 members of the youth group rallied in front of the U.S. Embassy to congratulate President Obama and to caution the new U.S. president against repeating his predecessor's mistakes.

"We hope this man, unique in many ways, will take a more sober look at Russia – a country that has regained the status of a great power," Mestniye leader Sergei Fadeyev is quoted by Interfax news agency as saying. "We also hope that that he would give up the policy of double standards and treat Russia as an equal partner."

Treating Russia as an equal partner appears to be the key factor in improving U.S.-Russian relations. After the defeat in the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union there is a deep-running feeling shared by many Russians that their country has not been treated fairly by the West and particularly by the United States.

Among the main irritants is the continuing NATO eastward enlargement which Moscow sees as a direct threat to its national security. U.S. resolve to offer a fast-track NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia and to install missile defense components in Poland and the Czech Republic has dramatically raised tensions between Washington and Moscow.

"It is easy to understand why so many Russians feel gravely embittered and insulted," Anatoly Utkin, a leading analyst at the Moscow-based U.S.A. and Canada Institute explained to CBS News in an interview. "Over the past 20 years, this country has made so many unjustified geopolitical concessions to the US, getting nothing in return from the West besides humiliation. Russia simply has nothing else left to cede."

And this is the reason why Russia, unlike some other countries, has not seen a tide of Obamamania. In the eyes of ordinary Russians, the White House is still associated with the previous U.S. administration and its policies. People here are waiting for a signal from Mr. Obama that a new chapter in U.S.-Russia relations has begun.

"Obama has not done or even said anything good about Russia. Russia is a country where words are important," explains Anatoly Utkin. "It would have made a difference, if Obama had, for instance, mentioned Dostoyevsky or said anything about the mysterious Russian soul."

Instead, "Obama has been repeating the word 'change' as his main mantra – but it remains to be seen in which direction that change is going to be," Utkin said.

Almost a decade ago, Russia's most powerful man - Vladimir Putin - managed to charm George W. Bush who looked Putin in the eye and "got a sense of his soul."

Today, Putin sounds charmed with the new U.S. President: "Mr. Obama appears to be a sincere and open person. Surely, this is appealing."

But as an experienced former KGB officer, Putin tempered his optimism about Barack Obama.

"Exclusive expectations usually produce the worst disappointment," Putin said. "Let's wait and see what happens in practice."