Page last updated at 11:00 GMT, Saturday, 4 July 2009 12:00 UK

Obama seeks thaw in US-Russia ties

Hunting out former Cold War bases

As President Barack Obama heads to Moscow in an attempt to bury the lingering legacy of the Cold War, Rupert Wingfied-Hayes tries to judge the mood of Russia's leaders behind the Kremlin's walls.

Russian horse flies are huge and carnivorous.

I know this from the personal experience of being eaten alive by them while trudging through a forest in western Russia this week.


While the US put most of its nukes on submarines and hid them in the oceans, Russia hid its massive arsenal in its trackless forests

The real monsters are as big as a cockroach and can bite you through your shirt. It is very unpleasant.

Why was I not better prepared? Why had I left the tin of extra strong insect repellent on my desk in Moscow?

Good questions. But more important is why I was there in the first place.

The answer is that I was looking for a nuclear missile base. Well, actually a disused nuclear missile base.

Scattered through the forests of Russia and Ukraine, and as far away as the Kazakh steppe, is a vast network of ruins, testament to the once huge size of the Soviet war machine.

While the US put most of its nukes on submarines and hid them in the oceans, Russia hid its massive arsenal in its trackless forests.

Now armed only with a grimy satellite image from the internet I was trying to find the place where one part of it was kept.

Eventually after walking for what seemed like hours, exhausted and covered in bites, we found it.

Nuclear arsenal

The reality was rather a disappointment.

A collection of broken concrete buildings, half demolished. Ransacked by locals for window glass and bricks.

Former missile silo
The legacy of the Cold War can still be found in the Russian countryside

It was hard to imagine that this was once a top secret facility, ready to deliver death on a massive scale.

Even the missile silos were a disappointment, stagnant concrete pools with old oil drums floating around in them.

The huge, metre-thick concrete lids had been cast aside like old pieces of rubbish.

"If we'd come here 20 years ago, we'd have been locked up as spies," one of my colleagues quipped.

And of course he was right. It suddenly struck me just how far the world has come since the bad old days of the Cold War.

A huge part of that is because of a treaty called Start I.

By the end of the 1980s Russia and America had amassed nuclear arsenals of an astonishing size - 60,0000 warheads, enough to blow the world up many times over.

But then, in 1991, the two countries signed a truly historic deal that would slash their stockpiles by 80%. The ruins all around me in the forest were the result.

But since then, despite many attempts, no new deal to cut nuclear weapons further has ever been put in to effect. Russia and the United States still have around 23,000 nuclear warheads, still more than enough to destroy the planet.

Challenging task

One reason is a lack of will, but the main one is a lack of trust.

This week, as he prepared to welcome Barack Obama to Moscow, Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev said relations between the two countries have sunk nearly as low as they were during the Cold War.

An inter-continental missile in Moscow in 1966
Negotiating nuclear disarmament is likely to be a lengthy process

This is the hill that President Obama has set himself the task of climbing.

In April, in Prague, the US president set out his vision for a world free of nuclear weapons.

To get there, the two countries that possess 96% of all the nuclear weapons in the world will have to start by cutting their own arsenals.

That will be impossible unless America and Russia can learn to trust each other again.

'Anti-American' feelings

I went to a party at the US embassy in Moscow this week.

It was the annual Independence Day bash.

US President Barack Obama (L) and Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev (R)
Will Presidents Obama and Medvedev be successful in rebuilding trust?

Everyone who is anyone in Moscow society was there, Gary Kasparov the former chess grand master, actors, writers, business leaders, politicians.

But try as I might, I could not spot a single member of the current Kremlin leadership, big or small.

It is a far cry from the days when President Boris Yeltsin used to turn up in person to toast his American friends.

Since the election of Barack Obama there has been a dramatic change, at least in the rhetoric.

In her first meeting with the Russian foreign minister, Hilary Clinton famously pressed a big red button symbolically resetting the relationship.

President Obama's visit will put the seal on this rapprochement.

But as I stood in the garden of the US ambassador's palatial mansion, I heard a very different view. It came from a former journalist who has watched US-Russia relations for two decades.

"The current Kremlin leadership is deeply anti-American," he told me.

"For the last eight years they have been able to hide that fact by pretending it is really George W Bush that they did not like.

"Now they have to face an American president who is genuinely popular around the world.

"He terrifies them," he said, "and they still haven't figured out what they are going to do."

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SEE ALSO
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