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Hillary Clinton meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

In Geneva, the diplomats express cautious optimism that the U.S. and Russia can agree on missile defense and nuclear arms reduction.

March 07, 2009|Paul Richter

GENEVA — The U.S. and Russia may be able to find common ground on the key issues of missile defense and nuclear arms reductions, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday.

Lavrov and Clinton spoke positively, if cautiously, after meeting in Geneva in an effort to ease tensions between the countries.

"We did not agree on everything, of course, but we agreed to work on every issue," Lavrov said. "I think we can arrive on a common view both in the context of offensive strategic weapons and missile defense."

Clinton described the meeting as "a fresh start."

Repairing relations with Russia has been high on the Obama administration's agenda because of Moscow's potential leverage on issues that include Iran's nuclear program, Afghanistan, Mideast peace and security in Eastern Europe. Ties have been especially strained since Russia's military incursion into Georgia last summer.

Friday's session was the highest-level meeting yet between the Obama administration and the Russians. There were hints that Clinton's dealings with Lavrov might be tense, recalling the Russian official's tensions with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, which often broke into the open.

Lavrov bristled when reminded by a reporter at a news conference that the U.S. tried to persuade Moscow not to sell long-range, surface-to-air missiles to Iran. The missiles would substantially improve Tehran's defensive capabilities, and U.S. and Israeli officials have strongly lobbied Moscow against the sale.

Lavrov insisted that the missiles were "non-destabilizing, defensive weapons" and then issued what appeared to be a criticism of the United States for selling arms to the Georgian government.

"We want our partners to act the same way and show restraint [in selling arms] to those countries where they very recently have used those weapons close to our borders," Lavrov said.

A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity in keeping with diplomatic protocol, said later that he didn't interpret that comment to mean Moscow was linking the missile sale to U.S. decisions on arms sales to Russia's neighbors.

Russia also has strongly opposed U.S. plans to install a missile defense system in Eastern Europe, and welcomed recent U.S. signals that the push for such a system is easing.

Clinton, seeking to illustrate U.S. interest in ending the Bush administration's acrimonious relations with Moscow, gave Lavrov an oversized red button labeled "reset," in Russian.

Lavrov needled her by pointing out that because of a translation error by the American staff, the button was labeled not "reset" but "overcharge." Clinton tried to laugh off the mistake, but Lavrov insisted, "You got it wrong." A few minutes later, however, he promised to put it on his desk.

The idea of hitting the "reset" button was first raised by Vice President Joe Biden, who said last month at a security conference in Munich that it was time to start over in bilateral relations.

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paul.richter@latimes.com

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