Moscow (AFP) March 4, 2009
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Friday holds her first bilateral talks with her Russian counterpart as Washington seeks to "reboot" ties plagued by discord over Iran and missile defence.
Her meeting in Geneva with Sergei Lavrov will be a test of whether President Barack Obama's emphasis on diplomacy can improve US-Russian relations, which were badly strained during the presidency of George W. Bush.
It will use "the opportunity of a new American administration to capitalise on the many areas where the US and Russia have common interests and can work in a common fashion," a senior US diplomat, Daniel Fried, said last week.
Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, said that "the two sides are exchanging a number of positive signals."
"One can expect progress in relations, more mutual flexibility, but no breakthrough. No decisive changes, but the parties are ready to make concessions."
The meeting comes after Obama revealed he had sent an overture to Moscow in the form of a confidential letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
The letter sparked a storm of speculation after The New York Times reported that Obama had suggested a trade-off in which he would back off deployment of missile-defence facilities in Eastern Europe that have angered Russia.
In return, according to the Times, Moscow would use its influence with Iran to stop Tehran from developing long-range missiles.
Both the White House and the Kremlin denied that any such grand bargain had been suggested, and Medvedev said it was "not productive" to link the two issues, signaling that Russia would not be easily swayed.
Obama denied that the letter had contained "some sort of quid pro quo" and said: "We've had a good exchange between ourselves and the Russians. I've said that we need to reset or reboot the relationship there."
Moscow fiercely opposes US plans to place elements of a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, viewing them as a threat to Russian security despite US assurances that they are directed against Iran.
Obama has said he would back the missile shield only if it is proven to work and is cost-effective, which many believe is a signal that he plans to shelve the project, which was strongly backed by Bush.
Meanwhile Washington is unhappy about Moscow's support for Tehran, including its role in building a nuclear power plant in Iran and blocking tougher sanctions over Iran's controversial nuclear programme.
Asked about Obama's letter to Medvedev, Clinton said the missile defence system "has always been intended to deter any missile that might come from Iran."
"That's been our stated position. It remains our position. We have explained that to the Russians before," Clinton said, adding that she would discuss the issue at length with Lavrov in Geneva.
Another topic on the agenda is expected to be the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), a landmark Cold War-era nuclear arms control treaty that expires on December 5.
Clinton has committed to a speedy regotiation of START after talks on the treaty made little progress under Bush.
START, which limits the number of missiles and warheads that each side may have, led to huge reductions in the US and Russian nuclear arsenals after it was signed in 1991.
The treaty contains a clause allowing it be extended for five years if both sides agree, but Lavrov said this week that Russia preferred an entirely new treaty leading to deeper reductions.
Lavrov also said his meeting with Clinton would lay the groundwork for an upcoming meeting of Obama and Medvedev, to take place during the G20 summit in London next month, Interfax news agency reported.
earlier related report
"It is my hope that we will persuade Russia to (take) part in that defence," she told reporters travelling with her to Brussels, adding that she thought Moscow might now feel less threatened by the US anti-missile shield plans.
"I think they are beginning to really believe it, that this is not about Russia," she said.
The United States has been negotiating with Poland and the Czech Republic to install 10 missile interceptors, which would not carry explosive warheads, and a radar system on their territories to expand its shield into Europe.
The move has angered Russia as it sees the system as a threat to its security, while Washington argues that the shield is only directed at "rogue states," primarily Iran.
Russia had threatened to deploy Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave wedged between NATO and EU members Poland and Lithuania, if Washington did not halt the planned extensions.
But US President Barack Obama has since ordered a review of the multi-billion dollar project to see whether it is still technically feasible and cost effective.
When asked about a possible de-freeze in NATO's ties with Russia, put on ice over Moscow's decision to send troops into Georgia last August, Clinton suggested there might be other means through which to engage Russia.
"I think the NATO-Russia Council is one vehicle but there may be other ways that we can design. But it is not the vehicle so much as the substance," she said.
According to alliance diplomats, Clinton and her NATO counterparts are set to announce Thursday the resumption of formal high-level ties with Russia while reassuring Georgia and Ukraine they have a future in the military alliance.
"We want to have a more robust and meaningful dialogue with Russia going forward on a range of issues," she said.
A positive signal could give impetus to talks Friday between Clinton and her Russian counterpart as Washington seeks to "reboot" relations plagued by discord over Iran and missile defence.
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British PM set for key White House talks
Washington (AFP) March 2, 2009
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown arrived in Washington late Monday for key talks with US President Barack Obama, as the plummeting economy and the Afghanistan conflict looked set to top the agenda.
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