Can Obama deliver in Russia?

For much of the last two decades, at least as far as any American president was concerned, Russia and the post-Soviet space have been the Wild East, an exciting new petro-chemical rich frontier in which the natives were weak and disorganised, and the west was free to roam. The argument that Russians behaved the way they did because they could not get over the loss of their empire, somehow did not apply to the other side in all of this – those who claimed victory at the end of the cold war and continued to expand into the vacuum created by Russia's retreat. Because it was all done in the name of democracy and exercise of sovereignty, it did not exist.

But it did to the Russians. Just beneath the touchy-feely atmospherics of Bill Clinton's patronising relationship with Boris Yeltsin, or the George Bush who peered deep into Vladimir Putin's eyes, lay a hard, unemotional calculation. If Russia kicked up about Kosovo, or Iraq, or missile defence, well so what? America would go ahead with it anyway. That attitude led to the creation of the most paranoid Russian leadership – at least in terms of how it evaluates the external threat that Nato poses – since Yuri Andropov.

So Barack Obama is in Moscow today with a genuinely new message. He undoubtedly means it, but the big question is whether he can deliver it. The offer he makes of treating Russia as an equal partner has a genuinely better prospect of hitting fertile ground, than it does with the Muslim world, because it goes to the heart of the Russian nationalist narrative which says: what's good for the west must be bad for us.

Turning that round will not be easy or swift. Take arms control. The two nations have between them 90% of the world's nuclear warheads but there the parity ends. There is no comparison between America's and Russia's conventional forces. One has the strongest,most transportable, best funded fighting force in the world, and the other has a collection of rusting ships, ageing bombers and tanks, a fraction of which are serviceable. There were 60,000 tanks ready to roll into western Europe at the height of the cold war, which was why Nato would have had to go nuclear if war broke out.

In five years, there will be 2,000 Russian tanks. This means the roles are reversed: Russia's conventional forces are so weak in comparison to Nato's, that they now need the nuclear umbrella as a first line of defence.

Of course, it is absurd to think in terms of a Nato attack on Russia. But when it comes to negotiating away the mutual threat, the number of ballistic missiles each side has is only the half of the problem. America's conventional forces are so overwhelming, that a cruise missile with a nuclear warhead could be mounted on virtually any platform anywhere in the world. They could be delivered from aircraft carriers, ships, even converted commercial aircraft. The US missile defence system, which will eventually be global, is an instrinsic part of the nuclear balance. There is every link between missiles and the ability to shoot them down in the early part of their trajectory. The Pentagon's determination to use space as a military platform is just as problematic.

These are formidable technical problems to overcome, and the two sides have only until the end of the year to resolve them, when the current Start 1 treaty expires. What Obama can attempt to re-establish is a measure of mutual trust and a mechanism for regulating bilateral relations. Even if he succeeds, the aftermath of Russia's war with Georgia and its deteriorating relationship with Ukraine will bubble away as permanent sources of conflict in the background. It will take years before Russia regulates its relationship with its poorer and weaker neighbours, and respects both their independence and their sovereignty. The only long-term answer is for Russia to be part of a pan-European security system, which would include Nato ,but over which it would not hold a veto. But that looks as far away now as the zero option of ridding the world of all nuclear warheads.

David Hearst, a foreign leader writer.