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Clinton hopes to repair ties with Russia

world Updated: Mar 07, 2009 00:10 IST
Sue Pleming

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Russia's foreign minister on Friday hoping to repair relations with Moscow and win help over Afghanistan for the Obama administration.

No major decisions were expected from the dinner with Sergei Lavrov in Geneva but President Barack Obama's team hopes to improve ties from a post-Cold War low during George W. Bush's presidency.

At the start of the talks, Clinton presented Lavrov with a small box with a red button labelled "reset" to demonstrate a willingness to improve ties, but Lavrov told her it was spelled incorrectly in Russian and meant "overcharge".

"We started in a very bad place in terms of U.S.-Russian relations. You would have to go back to the Cold War to remember animosity as high as this," a senior U.S. official said shortly before the talks began.

"This is the first meeting to try and reset the relationship."

The talks were intended to be the first in a series of substantive meetings and prepare for a summit of Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the end of the month, he said.

"It is important that we can cooperate with the Russians on issues of mutual interest and not check our values at the door," he said, referring to questions such as Georgia and human rights that continue to bedevil ties between Washington and Moscow.

When Russia sent tanks and troops into Georgia last year, the Bush administration tried to isolate Moscow, especially in international institutions such as NATO, which suspended ties.

FRESH START

Clinton said on Friday she wanted a fresh start but added divisions remained on NATO expansion and Russia's relations with its neighbours.

"There are areas where we just flat out disagree and we are not going to paper those over," Clinton told the BBC.

"We will not recognise the breakaway areas of Georgia, we do not recognise any sphere of influence on the part of Russia and their having some kind of veto power over who can join the EU or who can join NATO."

Criticising the Bush's administration's "confrontational approach" towards Russia, she said: "How much that contributed to Russian behaviour I think is a legitimate question to ask."

Clinton said earlier in Brussels Washington was troubled by the use of energy as a tool of intimidation, a reference to Russia's decision to cut off gas exports to Europe via Ukraine in a contract dispute with Kiev.

She said Russia was an important member of the group of powers trying to persuade Iran to renounce nuclear weapons.

In a decision likely to help the atmosphere, NATO agreed on Thursday to resume formal ties with Russia in the hope of securing greater support for the alliance's Afghan military campaign.

A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman said one of the main tasks of the meeting was to "define the mood" of relations.

"We await with cautious optimism the outcome of these talks," the Interfax news agency quoted him as saying.