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America's "wise men" lead the way on Russia

Lower-level diplomatic visits set the stage for this week's meeting between Obama and Medvedev.

A man displays Russian Matryoshka dolls featuring portraits of then President-elect Barack Obama (top) and U.S. President George W. Bush, in St. Petersburg Jan. 20, 2009. (Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — When President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, meet in London this week, they will profit from the advance work conducted by a glittering roster of American senior statesmen.

In March alone, Russia's leaders have been visited by former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and James A. Baker, former defense secretary William Perry, former senators — and foreign policy experts — Sam Nunn, Chuck Hagel and Gary Hart, and former White House national security adviser Brent Scowcroft.

While the visits to Moscow by the current crop of American "wise men" didn't involve the sort of heavy diplomatic lifting conducted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and official U.S. envoys, the trips have been used by both countries to send diplomatic winks and nods.

Dimitri Simes, the director of the Hart-Hagel commission on U.S.-Russian policy — a joint project of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and The Nixon Center here — noted that his group met with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and National Security Adviser James Jones before going to Russia. Once in Moscow, they met with Medvedev. And upon their return, they met with Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden.

At each stage of such visits, Simes said, signals are sent, received and analyzed. The delegation's welcome in Moscow was "remarkably positive," Simes said, but he cautioned against exuberance — noting how Russia's leaders also expressed skepticism that Obama's vaunted "reset" of U.S. foreign policy would lead to meaningful change.

The positive reception given the visiting American statesmen is all part of the atmospherics for the Obama-Medvedev meeting which, Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough said in a telephone briefing for reporters this weekend, "have dramatically improved in the last several weeks." The April 1 meeting between the two leaders — it will take place in conjunction with the world economic summit in London — "will be an opportunity for us to make that much more concrete," McDonough said.

The March visits of so many U.S. "wise men" was more serendipity than scheme, said Thomas Graham, a senior director for Kissinger Associates and a former adviser on Russian affairs to President George W. Bush. Such contacts are set up months in advance, Graham noted.

But not all visiting delegations get to meet — as the Kissinger-Nunn group did — with top-ranking Russian leaders like Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

The presence of so many senior hands in Russia this spring, and their reception by Russia's most powerful leaders, says two important things. First, that relations between the two big nuclear powers have deteriorated, alarmingly, and are in recognizably urgent need of attention. The U.S.-Russian relationship is in "severe disrepair," said Jessica Tuchman Mathews, the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

But the visits to Moscow also indicate that a lot of smart old guys who have dealt with the Russians for many years believe Obama's election represents a moment worth seizing.