Barack Obama has set off for Moscow for two days of talks with the Kremlin that could be a last chance to put American-Russia relations on a new, productive footing. The Russian visit – President Obama's first – follows years of escalating tension during the Bush years over, among other issues, the Caucasus, Nato expansion, Kosovo and Iran. Both sides have increasingly resorted to unilateral moves aimed at marking out territory as "no-go" areas for the other side.
Hence Russia's invasion of Georgia last August, ostensibly mounted in defence of Georgia's Ossetian minority but in reality intended to humiliate the pro-Western President of Georgia and scupper Tbilisi's ambitions to join Nato.
The US, meanwhile, continues to ponder possible offers of Nato membership for the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia – which would be a red rag to the Russian bull – and has stationed new missile defence transmitters in the former Warsaw pact countries of Poland and the Czech Republic.
Adding to Russia's anger, the US has humiliated Russia's Balkan ally, Serbia, by recognising the independence of breakaway Kosovo. Mr Obama, therefore, has his work cut out if wants to regain even a scintilla of goodwill and trust in the Kremlin, let alone "reset relations with Russia" – to repeat the optimistic phrase that he used in a recent interview with the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
To further complicate Mr Obama's mission, while his official host and interlocutor today is the Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, real power in the Kremlin remains very much in the hands of the Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, whom he does not meet until tomorrow.
Wisely, the two sides have agreed on nuclear arms control as the principal item for discussion, as well as a transit deal that would allow US weapons to reach Afghanistan across Russian airspace. Here, there is at least some room for optimism. However bitterly Mr Putin resents American encroachment into Russia's Caucasus "backyard", or what he also sees as a Western strategy to exclude Russia from exerting influence in the Balkans by boxing in Serbia, the two powers share a common interest in containing nuclear arms and in defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan. Russia is just as worried as America about Islamic extremism – possibly more so, governing as it does a large, sometimes restive, Muslim population in the south of its territory.
President Obama's dilemma is that while he needs to sound conciliatory, he cannot simply abandon positions that the previous US administration already staked out without looking as if he is waving a white flag.
Yet we in Europe must hope the talks get somewhere, and pave the way the way towards broader discussions of other areas of disagreement. As the slow pace of international recognition of Kosovo has shown, when Russia feels its interests are being ignored it can make life complicated for the West, if only in a negative, blocking, sense.
Were Russia today in a purely bloody-minded mood, it would be fanciful hoping for anything constructive to emerge from the Obama visit. But as the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov indicates, Moscow also believes the relationship with Washington has become "too adversarial". So while the door in the Kremlin may not be be wide open, it is, at least, ajar.Reuse content