Obama hopes his magic can thaw the frost in Moscow

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The Independent Online

Even before Barack Obama boards Air Force One tonight to attend the first fully fledged summit between the US and Russia since 2002, the diplomatic ether between Moscow and Washington is fairly crackling with the static of both anticipation and latent suspicion.

Russia is the first and the most critical of three stops on Mr Obama's latest transatlantic foray, which will include the G8 summit in Italy and an inevitably emotional visit by America's first black leader to Africa.

While the tourist shelves of Moscow are clogged with Obama dolls, the President faces challenges in his two days there, including talks tomorrow with President Dmitry Medvedev and on Tuesday with the Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin. He will also meet the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and deliver a major policy speech.

With Mr Medvedev, progress will be measured in part by an agreement on talks over replacing Start 1, the strategic arms treaty, which expires in December.

But before leaving Washington, Mr Obama indicated that his greater goal is to show that the clichés of Cold War antagonism between Russia and the US can be left behind. "This will be a very important meeting which will basically answer the question of whether the US and Russia can work together," said Dmitry Trenin, the director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, a think-tank.

Mr Obama indulged in a not-so-subtle dig at Mr Putin. "I think that it's important that even as we move forward with President Medvedev that Putin understand that the old Cold War approaches to US-Russian relations is outdated," he said. "Putin has one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new."

Teasing Mr Putin, if only a bit, carries risks for Mr Obama. "The most important part about his trip to Moscow is going to be his discussions with Vladimir Putin," Andrew Kuchins, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said.

Mr Putin himself attempted gently to swat away Mr Obama's remarks. "We don't know how to stand so awkwardly with our legs apart," he said on Russian television. "We stand solidly on our own two feet and always look into the future." His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was harsher. "Such a point of view has nothing to do with a true understanding of Putin," he said.

The White House remains hopeful that the "Obama Effect" can be put to work in Russia. The President signalled his interest in engaging in new arms talks in Prague in April and has indicated a willingness to reconsider plans to embark on a new anti-missiles shield in Europe. Washington has also quietly put further expansion of Nato – a serious irritant to US-Russia relations – on the back-burner.

But there are still frictions, including the hangover from Russia's military operations in Georgia. Surveys suggest ordinary Russians are almost as wary of the US under Mr Obama as they were of George Bush's America.

Aides to the President hope younger Russians especially will be wooed when they hear Mr Obama's speech, billed as one of a series of four addresses to a global audience that began in Prague and continued in Egypt.

The fourth comes in Ghana. The mere prospect of Mr Obama's touching down in Africa has the region fizzing, although some countries, including Nigeria and Kenya, the birthplace of his father, are wondering why he chose Ghana. Mr Obama partly answered the question in an interview with the allAfrica website. It's about the exercise of democracy.

"Countries where leadership recognises that they are accountable to the people, and that institutions are stronger than any one person, have a track record of producing results for the people. And we want to highlight that," he said.

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