Russia was on Saturday preparing to welcome US President Barack Obama for the first time, heartened by his description of the country as an equal but also stunned by criticism of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Obama arrives in Russia today on a visit to mend ties frayed by a series of disputes. He is set to sign a deal on the transit of US military goods to Afghanistan and a framework on replacing a key Cold War-era weapons treaty.
The US president is due to have several hours of talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev as well as a shorter breakfast meeting with the strongman former Kremlin chief and current prime minister Putin.
Russia has been eagerly awaiting the visit as proof of a change in US attitudes toward Moscow, but observers were astonished by a pre-summit interview in which Obama said Putin still had “one foot” in the Cold War.
In an interview, Obama said he believed “Putin has one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new.”
By contrast, Obama said he had “a very good relationship” with Medvedev.
The mass-circulation Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper said Obama was trying to break up the hitherto tight Russian ruling “tandem” of the president and the prime minister by taking sides.
“It seems that the Americans are undertaking a head-spinningly risky game with an unpredictable outcome,” it said in a front-page article.
“Washington has openly interfered in Russian political life and is stretching the ruling Kremlin tandem to breaking point. There has never been anything like this in all the zig-zags of relations between Washington and Moscow,” the article said.
Putin hit back at the remark with his trademark cutting style, quipping that he was “firmly standing on both legs and always looking to the future.”
Obama was more conciliatory in a TV interview broadcast on Saturday to the Russian-language audience, saying he wanted to forge new relations on an equal footing with Russia.
“America respects Russia, we want to build relations where we deal as equals,” he told the international Russian-language news channel Vesti.
Describing Russia as a “great country with extraordinary culture and traditions,” he said it “remains one of the most powerful countries in the world” and is a major guarantor of “international stability and prosperity.”
Labeling Medvedev a “thoughtful, forward-looking individual” who is “doing a fine job of leading Russia into the 21st century,” Obama said that Putin has been “a very strong leader for the Russian people.”
Obama’s remarks were translated from the dubbed Russian. There was no immediate transcript in English available from the White House.
The mass-circulation Komsomolskaya Pravda daily said up to 10,000 members of the security forces would line the route Obama’s convoy takes when he travels from a Moscow airport to the city center.
The president, his wife Michelle Obama and two daughters are to stay in a lavish suite at the Ritz Carlton hotel with views of Red Square, it said.