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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Landmark Speech Reaches Out to the Masses

MTObama speaking to the New Economic School’s class of 2009 on Tuesday.

In a landmark speech to Russian students on Tuesday afternoon, U.S. President Barack Obama called for Russia and the United States to focus on their common interests and end zero-sum politics.

The speech was billed by the White House as Obama’s third major foreign policy speech, after he talked about a non-nuclear world in Prague and addressed the Muslim world in Cairo.

The Moscow speech was less revolutionary, Russian political analysts said. But they saw it as part of an unprecedented campaign by Obama to reach out to Russia’s population as a whole, as opposed to just its ruling elite.

Obama spoke at the commencement ceremony of the New Economic School, which was held at Gostiny Dvor in central Moscow.

He arrived at noon with his wife, Michelle, who appeared briefly on stage in a black-and-white shift dress.

In a 20-minute speech, Obama said that “America wants a strong, peaceful and prosperous Russia.”

Repeating rhetoric about a “reset” in the countries’ relations, Obama called for “a sustained effort among the American and Russian people to identify mutual interests and to expand dialogue and cooperation.”

He talked of having “excellent discussions” with President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during his visit.

Both nations have an interest in stopping nuclear proliferation, he said, adding that he and President Dmitry Medvedev “made progress” Monday in negotiating a new treaty that will reduce warheads and delivery systems.

He also touched on missile defense, saying, “I want us to work together with Russia on a missile defense architecture that makes us all safer.”

Brushing aside Russian fears, he 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.”

He also tackled Russian worries of NATO expansion, saying, “NATO should be seeking collaboration with Russia, not confrontation.”

Nevertheless, “states must have the right to borders that are secure, and to their own foreign policy,” he said, citing Georgia and Ukraine as examples but without elaborating.

He praised cooperation between Russia and the United States in the fight against al-Qaida, noting that Russia was allowing supplies to coalition forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan to go through Russian territory.

“Neither the United States nor Russia has an interest in an Afghanistan or Pakistan governed by the Taliban,” he said.

In quotes that should be warmly received in Russia, Obama talked of his “deep respect” for Russian arts and quoted poet Alexander Pushkin.

He also acknowledged the Soviet Union’s major role in World War II, something that many Russians feel is downplayed. “No nation in the history of battle ever suffered more than the Soviet Union in the Second World War,” he said, quoting John F. Kennedy.

Obama twice used a quote from The Moscow Times in his speech.

“Back in 1993, shortly after this school opened, one NES student summed up the difficulty of change when he told a reporter, and I quote: “The real world is not so rational as on paper,’” Obama said. He later referred back to the quote.

The quote by student Konstantin Fominykh appeared in an article written by reporter Sander Thoenes on April 15, 1993.

Tuesday’s speech to economics students was largely a reiteration of U.S. foreign policy, but it should be viewed in the context of a visit where Obama is trying to interact with as broad a range of social and political groups as possible, said Lilia Shevtsova, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center.

No U.S. leader coming to Russia has ever done this before, she said.

“Of course, the main recipient of Obama’s message is the Kremlin and the Russian ruling elite. And the message is, ‘I don’t want to talk only to you,’” Shevtsova said.

Vladimir Yevseyev, an analyst with the Institute of Global Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said he was impressed with the generally friendly tone toward Russia, which could not have been expected under previous U.S. administrations.

“The speech was very positive and acknowledged Russia’s contribution to global affairs, even in cases where the U.S. partners have differing views from Moscow’s, such as on Russia’s role in World War II,” Yevseyev said.

Before the speech, Obama handed a framed diploma to the student who finished at the top of the class of 2009, Oksana Sytnova, and shook her hand.

Speaking afterward, Sytnova called the occasion “the most important event in my life.” She said Obama had spoken to her in Russian. “I was very surprised because he congratulated me in Russian. He said, ‘Pozdravlyayu,’” she said.

Sytnova said she has already started a job at the Economic Development Ministry. “There are things that need to be changed there, and I have a huge field for action,” she said.

Audience members spoke of Obama’s speech in glowing terms, despite being asked to arrive at 8 a.m. to go through security checks.

“It’s a great event for the New Economic School, so everyone is here,” said first-year student Leonid Ogrel, who snuck into the press box in a suit. He said he enjoyed Obama’s speech. “I think he’s a very professional politician and understands international relations very well.”

First-year student Yelena Neumoina held a camera as she watched the ceremony. “I think there are very positive changes since Obama became president,” she said. “I also liked his speech, and I hope relations between Russia and the United States will become much better.”

“Barack Obama was especially interesting to me because I share his views on the modern situation in the world and on how countries should cooperate with each other,” said Eduard Uraskulov, who was holding his newly received degree certificate, a master’s in economics. “If I had U.S. citizenship, I would give him my vote.”