Clinton plans meeting with Russian minister

WASHINGTON Fri Feb 13, 2009 1:43pm EST

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In a sign of warmer relations with Moscow, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton plans to meet Russia's foreign minister in Geneva next month, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said on Friday.

State Department spokesman Robert Wood would not confirm the meeting with Russia's Sergei Lavrov but told Reuters, "The secretary looks forward to meeting foreign minister Lavrov at the earliest possible time."

Solana, who saw Clinton in Washington on Thursday, told reporters the new top U.S. diplomat planned to have her first meeting with Lavrov on March 6 in Geneva following a gathering of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels.

The meeting follows a promise last weekend by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden that the Obama administration planned to hit the "reset button" in its relations with the former Cold War foe.

It also comes as the Obama administration is indicating it will compromise on a missile defense system opposed by Russia if Moscow cooperates in helping to curb a nuclear threat posed by Iran, one of the main reasons cited for the missile shield.

"If through strong diplomacy we and our other partners, including Russia, can reduce or eliminate the threat it obviously shapes the way we look at missile defense and its deployment," said State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid.

The Bush administration had prickly ties with Moscow over a host of issues, including U.S. plans to build a missile shield in Europe that Russia strongly opposes.

The Obama administration has promised a more pragmatic approach and Biden said at a security conference in Munich last Saturday that it was time to end a dangerous rift in ties and work with Moscow, a speech welcomed by Russia.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a Russian-speaker, had a testy relationship with Lavrov and Clinton has indicated she would like to turn that around.

"CONSTRUCTIVE" CONVERSATIONS

Since taking office last month, Clinton has had several telephone conversations with Lavrov, which senior U.S. diplomat William Burns described as "constructive" in an interview with the Russian news agency Interfax.

Burns, who was ambassador to Moscow until last year, was sent to Russia this week to kick-start a new relationship, with an early focus expected to be on reducing nuclear weapons as a key treaty is set to expire at the end of this year.

"The United States and Russia together possess 95 percent of the world's nuclear arsenal. It's important to set a good example to the rest of the world in how we manage and reduce our own remaining nuclear arsenals," said Burns in a transcript of the interview released on Friday.

Duguid said Burns had also explored with the Russians "new avenues" to resolve the dispute over missile defense. He did not provide details.

But a senior U.S. official said the United States would review "the pace of development" of its missile defense shield in Europe if Russia agreed to help stop Iran from building a nuclear bomb.

Clinton's meeting with Lavrov follows talks with NATO allies in Brussels, where the military alliance is also trying to mend ties with Russia following Moscow's brief invasion of Georgia last year.

"I think she is in the process along with Biden of rebuilding the sense that we are working with them rather than against them," said Robert Hunter, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO now with the RAND Corporation in Washington.

Another point of conflict was the Bush administration's bid to gain NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, which non-NATO member Russia strongly opposed.

"NATO as a whole is trying to shelve it and I think the administration will say some things, but I think they will shelve it," said Hunter of Ukraine and Georgia's NATO bids.

(Reporting by Sue Pleming; Editing by David Storey)

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