"We don't have the ability or even will to use coercive power to change Russia's behaviour," says a senior administration official.
Instead Mr Obama will be talking about America's national interests, in the hope that some of them may overlap with Russia's. The irony is that while Mr Obama and Mr Medvedev have pledged "to move beyond cold-war mentalities and chart a fresh start", the central (and safest) topic of talks is nuclear-arms control, just as it was in the 1980s. The two are aiming to bring their deployed arsenals down below the 1,700-2,000 by 2012 agreed in the 2002 Moscow treaty. An opinion poll this week shows that more than half of all Russians do not support the reductions. "Russia is encircled by American military bases, airports and naval units," cried Vyacheslav Nikonov, a hawkish commentator.
Yet the fact is that, in many ways, Russia needs a new treaty more than America. It cannot afford to start another arms race. "It is back to the future: in the dark days of the cold war, the only piece of real business that the United States and the Soviet Union could do together was not blowing up the world. It may not be the only game in town, but it is the only one that looks pretty clear win-win," says Mr Talbott.
By engaging with Russia on nuclear questions and giving it the status it craves, of a quasi-superpower, America hopes to get traction on other issues, such as Iran and non-proliferation. And if Russia has enough at stake in its relationship with America, it may even decide that the cost of fighting another war in Georgia or destabilising the Crimea is simply too high.
Moscow has registered the change of language. Sergei Prikhodko, the Kremlin's chief foreign-policy adviser, says the style has not become softer, but "we get the feeling that they don't just listen to us, they hear us as well."
But the most difficult issue will remain the fate of Georgia and Ukraine. Russia may not be trying to recreate an empire-it has neither the energy, human resources or ideology for that-but it is trying to prevent the West from entering its sphere of influence. Mr Trenin says that what Russia wants is a buffer zone, with no American military bases or NATO presence. The first targets in Georgia last August were military installations built to NATO standards. Russia wants a monopoly on the use of force in the former Soviet Union. It also wants to ensure that no conflict can be resolved without its involvement. In advocating a multipolar world, Russia sees itself as one of the poles, dominating its region.
Mr Obama's team will stress that America has no intention of giving up on Ukraine and Georgia. But it will not fight for Georgia militarily or force the issue of NATO membership, not least because neither country is ready. The danger, says Mr Illarionov, is that Russia may interpret any wavering as a signal that America has abandoned Georgia and Ukraine, which might then lead to another military clash.
As one of his advisers puts it, Mr Obama is not a sentimental guy. He will give the Russia relationship his best shot. But if his investment does not yield returns, there is a good chance that Russia will simply drop to the end of his long list of priorities. "We know this is a very serious window of opportunity and nobody should be in any doubt that we want to use it," says Mr Prikhodko. "But we also have to get answers to the questions we have accumulated over the years. We can ‘reset' the computer-but what are we going to do with the memories?"
Complete article: http://www.economist.com/world/europe/displaystory.cfm?story_id=13941990