The U.S. secretary of state arrived in Russia today for two days of talks with President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and other top officials.
Russian officials say they are preparing for calm and measured discussion. Such statements, however, couldn't be more at odds with the bitter exchanges between the two countries in recent months.
"I regard relations between the two countries as at their most tense in more than 20 years, since [Soviet President Mikhail] Gorbachev came to power and ushered in an era of new thinking in the sphere of foreign policy," says Yevgeny Volk, a political analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Moscow.
Among the divisive issues likely to be discussed are U.S. plans to build a missile-defense shield in Eastern Europe, and a Washington-backed plan to grant conditional independence to the Serbian province of Kosovo.
President Putin is vehemently opposed to both proposals. At a damning speech in Munich this year, he warned Washington's foreign policy was a threat to global peace.
Tit For Tat
In April, the Kremlin announced it was pulling out of a key arms accord, the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty -- a move widely seen as retaliation for the U.S. defense plans.
And Russia's ambassador to the United Nations said during the weekend it was "becoming more likely" his country would veto a draft UN Security Council resolution granting Kosovo independence.
Washington, in turn, has attacked Moscow's human rights record and accused the Kremlin of trampling on freedom of speech.
It has also criticized Moscow's hardened stance toward some of its neighbors, including Georgia and Ukraine, which are pursuing more Western policies.
Still, despite rising tensions, Rice told reporters on her arrival in Moscow today that there was no reason to speak of a new "Cold War."
Masha Lipman, an expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center, sees domestic interests in the current frosty relations.
"I think we've entered a really vicious circle here, because every next step brings about another unpleasant statement from the other side," she says.
"And this goes on and on, and it doesn't seem like there is a desire or readiness to become more constructive, not least because both countries have entered election campaigns and [in Russia] the closer it is to the election, the tougher the anti-Western stance."
Russians will vote in a parliamentary election in December and in a presidential poll next spring. In the United States, a presidential election will also take place in November 2008.