It's not immediately clear why Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev are meeting next month in Moscow. In Cold War times, Washington and Moscow were locked, boxerlike, in a sweaty, awkward embrace, and the whole point of any U.S.-Russia summit was to make sure that the fight didn't spill out of the ring. Meetings between heads of state were brakes, or institutional curbs, meant to ensure that the system persisted. Sustaining the status quo, however costly it may have been, was assumed to be preferable to its violent breakdown.
But now there is no system to sustain. And though both countries have overlapping interests, and though both have things to talk about (Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, missile defense in central Europe), it's not apparent why they need to talk about them now, with no wars or arms agreements on the table. Granted, there's the pact that's meant to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, but replacing an antiquated treaty feels stilted, as if the purpose of the talks is to talk rather than make the world a safer place. So why is this meeting taking place?
The basic answer is that Moscow, after years of trying unsuccessfully to reclaim its superpower status, has concluded that a new system is needed. Of course, a greatly weakened Russia is in no position to coauthor, with the United States, a new geopolitics. But it can initiate a conversation meant to transcend the asymmetries and tensions of the past two decades -- tensions that were manageable until recently but no longer appear so.
The shift, which no Russian leader has publicly articulated, is really a change in disposition that has yet to be felt concretely. But given various internal developments -- including the financial crisis, which has ignited anti-Kremlin demonstrations in Moscow, Vladivostok, and elsewhere; military reform, which is transforming how military and civilian leaders view the West; and the ascension of Medvedev himself, who shows few signs of being a force for change but seems uncomfortable with the status quo -- there is clearly something happening in Russia.
The krizis, more than any other turn of events, has had a devastating impact on the country's sense of self. The nationalistic, anti-American harrumphing of former President Vladimir Putin's reign has subsided, replaced by a deep skepticism and a fear that Russia is on the verge of a 1998-style disaster that will destroy the ruble and wipe out personal savings. Moscow's nightclubs reflect these fluctuations nicely. A decade ago, American men were in great demand. Sometime about five years ago, there was a palpable shift, and expatriates acquired a reputation for being leeches preying on the city's oversupply of beautiful women. Now, Americans are popular again, and where it was once considered imprudent to speak English, it is thought to be chic.