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A summit of limited expectations

Russian traditional wooden dolls,
Both sides have stressed the need to 'press the reset button'

By Jonathan Marcus
BBC diplomatic correspondent

Russia will provide the first major test of President Barack Obama's diplomatic skills.

Under the previous Bush administration, relations between Washington and Moscow were almost as bad as during the Cold War. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has spoken of the need "to get rid of the toxic assets" of the past.

So there is ample opportunity for improvement. Both sides have stressed the need to "press the reset button" in relations between their two countries.

But just what does this mean? In a famous diplomatic foot-note, amid a certain amount of embarrassment, the US state department got its Russian translation of the term "reset" muddled. But in reality, resetting this relationship does mean very different things for the two sides.

President Obama
Mr Obama needs to craft a new relationship with Russia

For President Barack Obama, it means escaping the shadow of the Cold War, turning a page, and crafting a new relationship based on common global interests.

At face value, the Russians would accept that, but fundamentally they take a rather different view. Their public statements are punctuated with phrases like the need for "an equal and mutually respectful partnership".

In Russia there is still a deep well of bitterness and insecurity prompted by the Soviet Union's collapse - a nostalgia for world-power status. Russia still sees itself as America's equal and wants to be treated as such. Russia still regards the US as a strategic competitor.

Arms control

In a briefing just ahead of this visit, the Obama administration's point-man on Russia, Michael McFaul, summed up this attitude succinctly: "The United States is considered an adversary... they think that our number-one objective in the world is to make Russia weaker, to surround Russia, to do things that make us stronger and Russia weaker."

The centrepiece of this summit will be arms control. The leaders will take stock of efforts to craft a new treaty limiting strategic nuclear weapons to replace the Start I agreement that expires in December.

They also hope to set out a much more expansive disarmament agenda for the future. But this is not going to be easy. The new treaty must have extensive verification provisions to enhance trust.

The discussion of arms control is as much about managing an adversarial relationship as building a new one

It will seek to limit not just delivery vehicles like ballistic missiles, but also warheads. Arsenals on both sides could shrink dramatically to some 1,500 warheads apiece. But time is short and the negotiations complex. It is still far from clear the extent to which Russian opposition to US missile defence plans could still throw a spanner in the works.

There is a paradox here. To craft a new relationship, Russia and the US are starting with the central issue of the Cold War years, namely disarmament. Indeed, as many analysts have argued, the discussion of arms control is as much about managing an adversarial relationship as building a new one.

This illustrates the very different approaches of the two sides. Russia sees arms control as the agenda through which it gains equivalence with Washington. It is back at the top table sitting face-to-face with the Americans, talking about one of the most dangerous issues confronting mankind.

The Americans, on the other hand, see arms control as the platform upon which to build a new relationship.

A deal with Russia is also important for President Obama's wider non-proliferation agenda. It is seen as vital that the big nuclear players cut their arsenals if efforts to prevent the unravelling of the existing non-proliferation regime are to succeed.

US Marines in Helmand Province
Russian assistance could be vital with concerns such as Afghanistan

Regional issues like Afghanistan, Iran and European security will also figure prominently at this summit.

The Americans are confident of obtaining Moscow's approval for flying troops and lethal military cargo through Russian airspace to Afghanistan.

President Obama will also meet Russian journalists and civil society activists.

And there will be another "big speech" at Moscow's forward-looking New Economic School.

But the shadow of the Cold War still falls across the relationship between Washington and Moscow. Escaping this mindset of the past will not be easy.

President Obama has a difficult diplomatic task. He must engage the Russian leadership while also seeking a new kind of engagement with the Russian people. He must seek to press that metaphorical reset button, while also signalling that he can be tough when needed.

The Americans are already signalling that there will be no formal reassurances or trading with Russia on missile defence or Nato expansion.

The message seems clear. The US wants a fresh start, but if one is not forthcoming, then so be it. Russia is by no means at the top of the Obama administration's foreign policy agenda, although the Americans know that on a variety of their pressing concerns - such as Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea and global warming - Russian assistance could be vital.

This, then, should be a summit of limited expectations.

Russian commentator Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Centre shares the scepticism of many: "I think the best we can hope for is that there is some chemistry or some little glimpse of building trust for the future," she told me.

"It may be the first tiny step on a long road ahead, I think this is the most we can hope for."



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