Obama to Focus on U.S., Russia Relations on Trip

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WASHINGTON -- Barack Obama is onto his next foreign mission: rebuilding relations with Russia and outlining his vision for Africa, his father's birthplace.

And when in Rome? Obama will go to the Vatican to see Pope Benedict XVI for their first meeting.

Obama's weeklong trip - he leaves Sunday night for Moscow - typifies the pace of his first-year agenda.

Familiar foes may shadow Obama and his plans.

Iran and N. Korea

Iran and North Korea are defiantly pursuing nuclear weapons programs despite international penalties. Iran has taken a hard and deadly line against postelection protesters, while North Korea fired seven ballistic missiles off its eastern coast on America's Independence Day. The North also has raised the prospect of a long-range missile launch, possibly toward Hawaii. The U.S. has positioned more missile defenses around the state.

Obama's trip is anchored around a yearly meeting of leaders from the world's industrial powers, set for Italy. The Group of Eight countries - the U.S., Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Canada and Russia - will try to make progress on climate change. Negotiations for a new international agreement to reduce greenhouse gases get under way in Denmark in December.

Nuclear-Arms-Focused Summit

Before the Italy meeting, Obama holds a nuclear-arms-focused summit in the Russian capital. The final leg of the trip brings the first black U.S. president to Africa, home to Obama's late Kenyan-born father.

Obama set a tone for the Moscow meeting by saying in an Associated Press interview Thursday that he was off to a good start with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. But, Obama added, Vladimir Putin - Medvedev's predecessor and the current prime minister - "still has a lot of sway in Russia."

Obama has separate meetings with them.

"I think Putin has one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new," Obama said in the interview. Putin responded Friday by poking fun at Obama's imagery and saying the new U.S. president is wrong about him. A Putin spokesman said Obama would change his mind after meeting Putin.

"Putin knows that, given Medvedev's position, he's the guy who deals with foreign leaders," said Stephen Sestanovich, a Russian expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "But Putin wants to find ways of reminding everybody who's really in charge. And I don't doubt that he will find ways of doing that."

Complex Country Relations

The rhetoric leading up to the summit reflects the complex relationship between the countries. Putting down a friendly marker of his own before Obama shows up, Medvedev noted that conditions had worsened in recent years but now there is "only one road to follow - the road of agreement."

Obama expects to emerge from Moscow with a framework for how the U.S. and Russia will go about reducing their stockpile of nuclear warheads. He and Medvedev stated their intentions toward that goal in April during a London meeting that had both leaders talking of a fresh start.

Any tangible progress now will be held up as proof of better U.S.-Russia ties, and a step toward broader cooperation on ridding the world of nuclear arms.

Yet there is harder work ahead to determine how many weapons both sides will give up and how those steps will be verified. Both sides hope to have a final deal in place before a current treaty expires in December. And still unclear is whether Russia will insist on linking its weapons reduction to an issue it says is related - U.S. plans to build a missile defense system in Europe.

Obama to Give Address

Obama plans to give a major address on U.S.-Russia relations and meet with a range of civic leaders, hoping to turn around Russian attitudes of the U.S.

"I think that there have been times over the last several years where U.S.-Russian relations were not as strong as they should be," Obama told state-owned Russia TV. "What I have said coming in is I want to press the restart button on relations between the United states and Russia."

International Summit

In Italy, the G-8 site was moved from a deluxe seaside resort in Sardinia to a military school in L'Aquila, where an earthquake in April killed 300 and displaced tens of thousands. Italy shifted the summit there to draw attention to the plight of the victims. Obama is expected to get a personal look at some of the damage.

A powerful aftershock hit the town Friday, just days ahead of the leaders' arrival.

The international summit will center on the recession but is expected to produce more of a recovery progress report than new policy. Iran, climate change, food security in Africa, Middle East peace and trade also are on the agenda.

Obama to Meet Pope

Obama will meet the pope on Friday. The president said he has a policy agenda in mind, including such matters as global poverty, but made clear that "having a meeting with the Holy Father is a great honor, and something that I'm very much looking forward to."

The president caps the trip in Ghana, a West African country that has emerged as a standout example of democracy in a region beset by coups. He will speak to parliament, emphasizing the promise of democratic governance, and tour a castle that once served as a hub of slave trading.

As he embarks on this fifth foreign trip of his presidency, Obama's approval rating hovers around a strong 60 percent. Awaiting him upon his return will be the start of Senate hearings on his Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, and intensifying legislative debate over his push to overhaul health care.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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Ben Feller

Ben Feller

Associated Press Writer

The Associated Press is the backbone of the world's information system serving thousands of daily newspaper, radio, television and online customers with coverage in all media and news in all formats. It is the largest and oldest news organization in the world, serving as a source of news, photos, graphics, audio and video.