Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in Washington for meetings with U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in what both sides have described as an effort to "reset" relations that declined under the previous administration.
During the eight years that George W. Bush was president of the United States, relations with Russia declined steadily, despite Bush's insistence that he shared a friendship with Vladimir Putin, who was Russia's president for most of that period.
But when Obama succeeded Bush, his vice president, Joe Biden, announced it was time to "press the reset button" on U.S.-Russian relations.
After a brief meeting at the White House, Lavrov and Obama spoke not of budding friendship, but of mutual respect and serious work to address many areas of common interest. It was Obama who decided to maintain the "reset" theme in his comments to reporters after the meeting.
"I think we have an excellent opportunity to reset the relationship between the United States and Russia on a whole host of issues, from nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation, the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, how we approach Iran, how we approach the Middle East, commercial ties between the two countries, and how we address the financial crisis that has put such a strain on the economies of all countries around the world," Obama said.
For his part, Lavrov said U.S. and Russian diplomats are now preparing for a summit between Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev this summer, and he spoke of the positive atmosphere that has been created.
"I think we work in a very pragmatic, businesslike way on the basis of the common interest whenever our positions coincide, and on the basis of respect to each other whenever we have disagreements, trying to narrow those disagreements for the benefit of our countries and the international stability," Lavrov said. "And I can convey to you once again that President Medvedev is really looking forward to meeting you in Moscow this July."
The two countries agree on several points, including a reduction of nuclear weapons and protecting those that remain, and persuading Iran and North Korea to abandon their nuclear ambitions.
But their differences are pronounced. They include how independent Georgia should be of Russian influence, whether the United States should set up a missile-defense array in Central Europe, and whether even more countries once in the old Soviet sphere of influence should become new members of NATO.
Lavrov and Clinton addressed some of those issues earlier in the day at the State Department.
For example, Clinton said U.S. and Russian negotiators have been meeting to find a replacement for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) to make it more relevant in a world where the nuclear threat comes not from the owners of the weapons, but those who would steal them.
Clinton said the two countries' differences won't hinder efforts to come up with a strong new arms treaty, and that she and Lavrov are personally involved in the negotiations.
[The] foreign minister and I discussed how we can, through our own efforts together, set a standard and example to improve the security of nuclear facilities and prevent the proliferation of nuclear material around the world," Clinton said.
Lavrov and Clinton also touched on the Bush-era missile-defense program, which Russia believes is targeted at it. Washington insists the defenses are for missiles from rogue states like Iran.
Lavrov spoke optimistically about resolving these differences, saying: "We also paid attention to the issues of missile defenses, an area where the two presidents [of Russia and the United States] have voiced willingness to find grounds for bilateral work. We confirmed this interest in the course of today's meeting."
Perhaps the most contentious subject for Washington and Moscow is Georgia, where Moscow fought a brief war last August.
Both Clinton and Lavrov agreed that stability in the Caucasus is a shared goal. But they don't agree on how to achieve that stability.
Another shared goal is preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Iran says its nuclear program is for generating power, but Western governments say they suspect Tehran is trying to build an atomic bomb.
At the United Nations, the United States, Britain, France, and Germany have repeatedly pressed for tough sanctions against Iran. On May 7, Lavrov said, as he has before, that he doesn't believe sanctions will persuade Iran to back down.
But, speaking optimistically again, Lavrov praised international efforts to move away from threats and to engage Iran more diplomatically.
"Now I think that the conditions for launching real talks [with Iran] on the basis of proposals on the negotiating table are forming," Lavrov said. "I have never said that we are against any pressure on Iran. I said that we see no reason [for] tough sanctions against Iran."
On North Korea, Clinton said she agrees with Lavrov, who recently returned from Pyongyang, that the only way to make progress is to get North Korea to rejoin the six-party talks.
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