President Obama leaves Sunday on a foreign trip that takes him first to Russia. In Moscow, the president will meet with his counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Nearly two decades after the Cold War ended, the two countries are still working out their relationship. The Obama administration says it is anxious to "press the reset button" on what have been rather tense ties between Washington and Moscow.
And when Gleb Pavlovsky, a close associate of Putin, says Russia is in trouble and needs a friend in the United States, it's clear something has changed.
"The current world is dangerous, and Russia doesn't have a strategy," he says. "We need someone with whom we can navigate this new world. We need someone to talk to, to find areas of agreement."
Pavlovksy believes Obama is that someone. Sergei Rogov, head of the U.S.-Canada Institute, agrees, but he cautions that it is still not clear on either side where relations are headed.
"We are no more enemies, but what [are we]? We have practically complete mistrust," he says.
Starting With Arms Control
The two sides have settled on the old issue of arms control as a way to launch the new dialogue. Both say they want to reach a deal by December, when the 1991 START nuclear arms treaty expires. Rogov says this will be hard, though not impossible, to achieve.
"We have to negotiate in several weeks, maybe months, what usually takes at least several years," he says.
There are still serious gaps between the two sides, and there are even wider gaps on two other issues: the Kremlin's vehement objections to NATO's plan to include Russia's neighbors Ukraine and Georgia; and deployment of a U.S. missile defense system in central Europe, which the Kremlin argues can only be aimed at it.
U.S. officials have said there won't be any horse trading on these issues, but Russian officials understand Obama is less interested in pushing NATO enlargement than his predecessor. And they know the administration's budget on missile defense is way down, and that a review is under way.
Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, says these issues could be finessed for a while, but ultimately they will have to be resolved.
"Russia's main security concern is [the] situation in neighboring territories," he says. "It's really deep-rooted in Russian history. That's why Russia demands a sphere of privileged interest."
Reaching Out To The People
Many Russian analysts say the two presidents can make initial progress, and build confidence, by focusing not on concessions but on areas of mutual cooperation. In addition to arms control, they cite Afghanistan, North Korea and even Iran.
Rogov says dramatic steps are not likely soon, but he says there has to be more than just fuzzy atmospherics.
In recent years, Russians, through the largely Kremlin-controlled media, have been fed a steady diet of anti-American propaganda. Obama wants to counteract this by reaching not just Russia's leaders but also its people. He has chosen a place where he will find a sympathetic audience — Moscow's prestigious New Economic School, a center of economic liberalism and modern thinking.
Anton Tsoy, who has closely followed Obama, is thrilled the American president will address his graduating class.
"The way he speaks in public is very amazing," he says. "We are now surviving difficult times. We all understand that we need to cooperate and deal together with the crisis."
Olga Makarov echoed the widespread view — at least at the school — that Obama should tackle prickly issues like Russian human rights, democracy and corruption.
"I think it would be helpful if Barack Obama will talk about this in front of our president or in front of our government," she says.
But given how fragile the relationship is and how suspicious many Russians remain of America, Obama is likely to tread carefully.