The world does not hold its breath during US-Russia summits as it did in the days of Kennedy and Khrushchev or Reagan and Gorbachev. But they are still important moments of (mostly choreographed) dialogue. Without Moscow’s co-operation, Barack Obama will find it far harder to make progress in Afghanistan or in his diplomatic strategy to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons programme. On top of this, Russia still has the capacity to create huge problems in Eastern Europe and Central Asia for the United States. It must be prevented from becoming a more chauvinist and aggressive power — otherwise Washington will be forced to choose between conflict and breaking its promises to the fledging democracies on Russia’s borders.
At the end of the Cold War, there was a moment — briefly — when both the Soviet Union and the United States could claim (at least to their own peoples) that they had triumphed by ending it peacefully. But the break-up of the USSR and the economic disasters of the 1990s dashed that illusory symmetry. Instead, Russia smarted at its humiliation. In only seven years, it had been relegated from superpower to mendicant nation bailed out by the IMF. Nato’s bombing of Serbia was a brutal demonstration that Russia could not even prevent military action against one of its historic allies in its ‘near-abroad’.
Much of Vladimir Putin’s political success has reflected his deft capacity to tap that resentment — leading, in turn, to the unproductive revival of a Cold War adversarial mindset. For instance, Russia, despite the modest progress made by Obama and Medvedev this week, remains extremely hostile to America’s plan for a missile defence shield with bases in Eastern Europe, viewing the shield as an attempt to allow Washington to strike without fear of retaliation.