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Obama seeks to exorcise Cold War ghosts in Moscow

Moscow — Barack Obama on Monday becomes just the sixth US president in history to visit Moscow, seeking to open a new chapter in a relationship still haunted by the legacy and suspicions of the Cold War.

Allies in World War II when the joint aim of defeating Nazi Germany overcame deep ideological divisions, the United States and Soviet Union became bitter nuclear-armed foes post war.

The collapse of Communism and the emergence of an independent Russia raised hopes of a new era of harmony but efforts to bury the past were mired by disputes on defence and the balance of power in the post-Soviet world.

The back-slapping bonhomie of the ‘Boris n’ Bill show’ under charismatic presidents Yeltsin and Clinton — which once saw the Russian reduce his US partner to tears of laughter — failed to eliminate the lingering distrust.

And while George W. Bush famously professed to have sensed "the soul" of his ex-KGB counterpart Vladimir Putin, his presidential psychoanalysis did not foresee bruising disputes over missile defence and ex-Soviet states.

It is in this context that Obama will meet youthful Kremlin chief Dmitry Medvedev and Putin, now a strongman prime minister, with the aim of "resetting" relations after the turbulence of the Bush years.

Robert Legvold, Professor of Political Science at Columbia University, said the relations had "gone off the tracks" over the last decade and then "hit an embankment" with Russia’s August war with Georgia.

"The new administration has put the train back on track but the tracks are very shaky and this process is still vulnerable to detours, delays and setbacks," he warned.

For Konstantin Kosachyev, the chairman of the Russian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, "the Cold War is ending but it has not ended."

"For it to end we have to convert words into deeds."

As if to emphasise that Cold War spectres remain in Moscow, the Russian foreign ministry this week held a major ceremony to mark the approaching 100th birthday of the late Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko.

The diplomat — who served in his post for almost three decades — was known in the West as "Mr Nyet" (Mr No) for his notorious intransigence.

According to Dimitri Simes, president of the Washington-based Nixon Centre, there also remain many officials in the Pentagon and US national security council whose ideas about Russia are rooted in the past.

"I think that the leading figures in the administration are seriously and sincerely focused on an improvement in relations with Russia.

"But at a less high level in the administration there are many officials who have not renounced the ideas of the past."

Cold War-era US national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski told Russia’s Interfax news agency ahead of the visit that the United States and Russia "still have some very different views on how the world should be organised."

Obama will be following the trail blazed by Richard Nixon on May 22, 1972 when he stepped off a plane at Vnukovo airport southwest of Moscow to become the first US president to visit the Soviet Union.

Nixon made a repeat visit in 1974 — on both occasions sleeping in an apartment within the Kremlin — but it would be another 14 years before Ronald Reagan in 1988 became the next US President to visit Moscow.

President Gerald Ford had held talks in Vladivostok in 1974 and George H.W. Bush visited Moscow in 1991, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Reagan in his Farewell Address gave a flavour of Cold War era visits, when he recalled briefly breaking away from the official entourage with his wife Nancy to visit the historic Arbat Street in central Moscow.

"Though our visit was a surprise, every Russian there immediately recognised us and called out our names… But within seconds, a KGB detail pushed their way toward us and began pushing and shoving the people in the crowd."

And showing history still haunts the present, controversy erupted earlier this year when Obama’s official photographer claimed a photograph taken of Reagan in Red Square in 1988 showed KGB-man Putin posing a Russian tourist.

Russian officials never confirmed if the young man with a camera slung round his neck was indeed Putin. In any case, the man seen as the de-facto Russian leader is scheduled to meet Obama for real, at a breakfast meeting.

Stuart Williams/AFP/Expatica