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

Still, there are mixed results. The younger Bush and his counterpart, Vladimir Putin, cooperated on counterterrorism and agreed to arms cuts but fell out over what Russia regarded as U.S. unilateralism and what the U.S. saw as Russian backsliding on democracy.

Ariel Cohen, a Russia expert at the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, said American presidents have "tried to reach out and remake Russia in our image."

Along the way, he added, "we stepped on a lot of toes and broke a lot of china."

During a May appearance in Washington, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov complained that the U.S. is encroaching on Russia's security.

He cited the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to Russia's borders and U.S. support for the applications of Georgia and Ukraine to join the military alliance. The Kremlin opposes NATO membership for its former Soviet allies.

Lavrov said that if the United States wants to "reset our relations" this year, "then we must get rid of the toxic assets inherited" from last year. That includes the proposed U.S. missile-defense system that would place radar in the Czech Republic and interceptor missiles in Poland, both Russian neighbors.

Michael McFaul, the Russia expert in the Obama White House, told reporters before Obama's trip that the new U.S. president does not intend to give in on NATO or missile defense. McFaul said the U.S. contingent in Russia will not use the term "reassure" on either topic.

"We're going to define our national interests," McFaul said. "And then we're going to see if there are ways that we can have Russia cooperate on those things."

A look at highlights, challenges of past summits

President Obama arrives in Moscow today at the invitation of his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev. Obama has said he wants to "reset" the frayed relationship between the United States and Russia, which has challenged leaders of both countries for years. USA TODAY's David Jackson reviews some noted meetings.