Post-Cold War ties with Kremlin still chilly

As a freshman senator in August 2005, Barack Obama walked through Moscow's Red Square virtually unnoticed during a congressional trip to inspect former nuclear weapons sites.

Today, Obama's face adorns Russian nesting dolls, which can be pulled apart to reveal smaller dolls with the portraits of previous American presidents. This time, Obama said, "I'm in a position to get more accomplished than my first visit."

Inna Prorokova, 37, who sells dolls at one of the many souvenir stands near Red Square, said she is looking forward to Obama's visit Monday and Tuesday, but it will "take time before we get to know him." Obama also needs to take time, she said, to "feel hospitality in our country, get to know it close."

Obama faces a tough job, said Denis Sorokin, 29, visiting Moscow from his parents' home in Siberia. He said relations got "worse" because President George W. Bush was a "joke," while Russia became increasingly "paranoid."

Sorokin also bemoans that "Russia is becoming a police state" and laments "there is no freedom of speech anymore."

James Collins, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia in the Clinton administration, said Obama can be considered the first true post-Cold War president.

He noted that Bush and former president Bill Clinton grew up in the era when U.S.-Soviet summits shaped the fate of the world. Obama, by comparison, has come of age in a different time, having turned 30 when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

"His political worldview has not been shaped by a bipolar, Cold War paradigm," Collins said. "He doesn't think in Cold War terms or vocabulary."

End of Cold War

Presidential summits with Russian leaders have been part of the political landscape for more than 60 years. Franklin Roosevelt and Josef Stalin, who emerged as the big winners of World War II, began the practice in 1943 when they met with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Tehran, Iran.

For decades, these meetings were literally life-and-death affairs. As the world's two original superpowers, the U.S. and what was then the Soviet Union could project their strength because each possessed nuclear weapons. (Today, the U.S. and Russia each still have thousands of strategic warheads — more than China, France and Great Britain combined.)

"The essence of the relationship during the Cold War was preventing something very bad from happening, like nuclear holocaust," said Strobe Talbott, deputy secretary of State and a Russia expert during the Clinton administration.

Then, at the end of 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Former communist satellites in Eastern Europe, including Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, became capitalist democracies, as did former Soviet republics such as Georgia and Ukraine.

Presidents George H.W. Bush, his son and Clinton each sought to promote democracy and market capitalism in Russia itself while trying to integrate the country more into the West. They also solicited Russian cooperation on issues such as the Middle East peace process and securing and destroying nuclear materials.

Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, said the partnership "has become more varied, more substantive, less negative."

Broken china

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