NOVO OGARYOVO, Russia – President Barack Obama, meeting Tuesday with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for the first time, called their talks "an excellent opportunity to put U.S.-Russian relations on a strong footing."
Putin told his guest: "With you, we link our hopes for the furtherance of relations between our two countries."
Putin warmly greeted Obama for talks on a clear, sunny morning in Nova Ogaryovo, a Moscow suburb where the prime minister's white and yellow traditional Russian-style mansion is situated along the Moscow River amid a forest of pine, birch and linden.
The body language was positive for both Obama and Putin, who had traded sharp barbs in the days preceding the U.S. president's flight to Moscow.
As the two appeared for a picture-taking session before commencing their private talks, Obama told Putin he "appreciated you taking the time to meet with me." For his part, Putin noted that U.S.-Russian relations have been marked by periods of chill, as well as times of relative warmth. And he said he was "glad to have the opportunity to get acquainted" with Obama, who is making his first trip to Russia.
The meeting, which lasted two hours — about 30 minutes longer than planned — came 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."
The two leaders appeared together in an ornate room of Putin's country home, sitting in chairs placed in front of a highly colored traditional Russian ceramic stove that at one time would heated the room.
At the end of their brief meeting before reporters, Putin took Obama to a nearby window and pointed out a large outdoor balcony where they were to sit for their meetings over breakfast. The session took place on a clear day, in marked contrast to the cool, rain weather that Moscow saw for several days previously.
Putin's remarks seemed particularly cordial given his tart response last week to a comment that Obama made about him in an interview with The Associated Press. Obama said last Thursday that Putin still had one foot in the old, Cold War of doing things, and the prime minister retorted that he thought that observation to be quite a stretch.
Putin was accompanied at Tuesday's meeting by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. National security adviser Jim Jones, Russian affairs adviser Michael McFaul and Undersecretary of State William Burns were among those who accompanied Obama.
As one-on-one meetings go, Tuesday's session had a sense of diplomatic drama. It was a chance for Obama and Putin to take a measure of each other, offering a little definition to a relationship that thus far had been shaped by reputation and comments to the media.
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 in other parts of Europe and where the Russian people are wary of U.S. power.
Obama hoped to change minds with a speech that White House aides billed as a pillar of his foreign policy — on the same level of his call for a nuclear-free world while in Prague, or his outreach to the Muslim world in a speech in Cairo. The speech will be to graduates of the New Economic School, considered to be a center of liberal thinking.
Obama is expected to define major U.S. interests and put each of them — like democracy, energy, confronting terrorism and rogue nuclear threats — in the context of Russia.
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.
"It's an issue that he's not afraid to come and talk very deliberately about why he cares about it," McFaul said of Obama's democracy theme. He said that in his speech, Obama will raise the matter "very, very precisely, first thing."
Obama on Tuesday also planned to meet with former Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev; meet again with Medvedev at the Kremlin; join Medvedev in taking part in a summit of U.S. and Russian business leaders; and meet a diverse collection of civil society leaders from both countries — health experts, environmentalist, 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.