President Obama, pushing hard to re-shape Russian-American relations said he disagrees with the view that Russia and the U.S. are destined to be antagonists and that this is a fresh start for the two countries.
At a speech at the New Economic School, Obama sought to remind Americans and Russians that the cold war that made the two countries enemies is over, and that the issues that keep them apart should not.
"I know Russia opposes the planned configuration for missile defense in Europe," Obama said. "I have made it clear that this system is directed at preventing a potential attack from Iran, and has nothing to do with Russia. In fact, I want us to work together on a missile defense architecture that makes us all safer. But if the threat from Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programs is eliminated, the driving force for missile defense in Europe will be eliminated. That is in our mutual interest. "
The speech, given at the graduation, was mostly a reiteration of what Obama said Monday in meetings with Russian President Medvedev. The two leaders held a two hour one-on-one where they discussed missile defense, but also the pursuit of nuclear weapons by countries like Iran and North Korea. Both leaders expressed concern about the advancement of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East and Korean peninsula.
"The notion that prestige comes from holding these weapons, or that we can protect ourselves by picking and choosing which nations can have them, is an illusion." Obama said.
And the President also touched on an issue that might have caused friction between the Bush administration and Russia. "No one nation can meet the challenges of the 21st century on its own, nor dictate its terms to the world. This is something America now understands, " Obama said.
Obama began his day meeting with Prime Minister Putin, a man who many feel still holds power in Russia. He met privately with former President Gorbachev before the speech and was set to meet later in the day with various opposition groups. It's a move that might not make Russian leaders happy, but its something the President clearly feels strongly about, even discussing competitive elections in his speech, and seemingly encouraging Russia to continue to march towards a more democratic nation.
"Freedom of speech and assembly has allowed women, minorities, and workers to protest for full and equal rights. The rule of law and equal administration of justice has busted monopolies, shut down political machines, and ended abuses of power. Independent media have exposed corruption at all levels of business and government," Obama said. "Competitive elections allow us to change course and hold our leaders accountable. 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 also tried to keep things light, telling the audience he has the greatest respect for Russia's writers, composers and heritage, as well as it's hockey stars. "As a resident of Washington, I continue to benefit from the contributions of Russians - specifically, from Alexander Ovechkin."