Among the many great expectations being loaded onto this week's G-20 summit in London is the hope that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and his US counterpart, Barack Obama, will decisively push the “reset” button to reverse the nearly decade-long downward spiral in Washington-Moscow ties.
But some Russian foreign policy experts warn that the relationship is more deeply vexed by geopolitical differences and fraught with cross-cultural misunderstandings than most people realize, and attempts to make hasty progress could crash.
They say if the two presidents want to come away from their brief first encounter with anything positive, they should begin with the issues where common interests are most obvious, or the two “As”: arms control and Afghanistan.
"We have just been through a long period of miscommunication and crossed signals. To create movement toward better relations the leaders need to focus on things that hold out the prospect of rapid success," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign policy journal.
Arms control is a no-brainer, he says, because both sides have a strong desire to find a replacement for the soon-to-expire START accord. Establishments in Russia and the US have fond institutional memories of cold war-era détente between the two nuclear superpowers, and many of the very people who helped shape those strategic accords have lately stepped back into the limelight. (For a discussion of arms control prospects see here.)
Over the past month, several such shades of goodwill past have visited Moscow, including former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger, James Baker, and George Shultz, all of whom played key roles in ending the cold war.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, who is credited with peacefully dismantling Communism, recently met Mr. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden in Washington where, he later told journalists, everyone expressed a strong desire to get the US-Russian relationship back on track.
Both sides also see eye-to-eye about short-term priorities in Afghanistan, and the chances to quickly broaden cooperation between Russia and NATO look very good, experts say. (For details on Russia's Afghan policy see here.)
"We all have a horror of seeing the Taliban return to power in Afghanistan, and we have a common interest in stabilization," says Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the independent Institute of Middle East Studies in Moscow. "With just a little encouragement from Obama, Russia will quickly give a green light to a full transport corridor to resupply NATO forces in Afghanistan," he says. "In terms of advice and sharing experiences, we're ready. Moscow will draw the line at actually sending troops, but it is definitely prepared to help on many other levels."
Last week the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a group of six central Asian countries led by Russia and China, held a special meeting on Afghanistan and decided to reach out to the pro-Western government in Kabul, including assistance in combating narco-trafficking, protecting borders, and possible arms sales.
Further down the alphabet, issues offer less prospect for swift accord, and Mr. Medvedev and Obama might do well to avoid them early in their new relationship, experts say.
What to do about Iran's alleged drive to obtain nuclear weapons is a subject that could quickly degenerate into a shouting match if not handled carefully, says Mr. Lukyanov.
Pentagon plans to eventually build a globe-girdling antimissile shield are not likely to go away permanently; nor is there much chance the Russians can ever be persuaded to accept the scheme. And Moscow's belief that it deserves to hold sway in a privileged "sphere of influence" that takes in most of the former Soviet Union will probably never gain a foothold in Washington.
"In the long term, US-Russian relations are a difficult and complex puzzle," says Mr. Satanovsky. "In the short term, if Obama wants to convert his reasonable words into policy, we need to be strictly pragmatic."