Upon meeting Vladimir Putin, former President George W. Bush famously quipped that he looked into the Russian leader’s eyes and saw his soul.
Next week, current President Obama will look into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and see a man who holds an inordinate amount of power in that country.
Obama travels to Russia for his first Moscow summit. There he will sit down with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, whom he has already established a relationship with, and, for the first time, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, whom Obama says “still has a lot of sway.”
The visit is billed as a way to reset tenuous relations with the former Cold War nemesis but figuring out a way to deal with Putin is job No. 1. Obama told The Associated Press that he plans on reminding Putin that the Cold War is over and telling him to get with the 21st century.
"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forward with President Medvedev that Putin understand that the old Cold War approaches to U.S.-Russian relations is outdated.”
Most analysts expect that Obama and Medvedev will be able to somewhat mend relations, though it is unclear whether the two sides will bridge the most problematic issues.
"The president (has) made very clear that he (wants) to establish a different kind of relationship with Russia," Mike McFaul, Obama's special assistant for Russian affairs, said in a White House briefing.
The White House goal is a "substantive" relationship, as opposed to a "good or bad or indifferent" one, McFaul said.
In Washington, White House aides say Obama is hoping to emerge from the summit with clear progress on reducing both nations' nuclear arsenals and changing the way the Russian people view the United States.
But any progress in negotiations will not come from a meeting with Medvedev, because there are questions as to how much power he wields. Putin is the man to deal with.
"This is the biggest mystery — who is really the president, who is really the boss," Boris Nemtsov, a Russian opposition leader and Putin critic, this week told the Council on Foreign Relations.
Early reports say that Putin is not warm to the idea of restarting nuclear talks with the US unless they are the ones offering concessions.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesman, said Russia believes a new nuclear arms treaty is only possible if the U.S. addresses the concerns about missile defense.
"We cannot discuss the reduction of strategic offensive weapons without clarifying the U.S. plans on missile defenses in Europe. It would be illogical," Peskov said Thursday on Echo Moskvy radio.
Obama has shown a willingness to discuss terminating a European missile defense system if it would improve relations between the to powerful nations. The missile defense plan has stoked the Russian sentiment that America is trying to weaken the country by holding strategic positions around it.
"I think there's a big problem in U.S.-Russian relations now and has been for some time in that if you look at Russian public opinion . . . the United States is considered an adversary," said McFaul.
"They think that our No. 1 objective in the world is to make Russia weaker, to surround Russia, to do things that make us stronger and Russia weaker . . . I think what you're going to hear when President Obama is in Moscow, that that is not the way that he sees the relationship.”