WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. and Russian officials will seek to maintain a working relationship when they meet in Washington on Friday, even though the political mood between their countries has hit one of its lowest points since the end of the Cold War.
President Barack Obama’s cancellation this week of a summit in Moscow with President Vladimir Putin finally put to rest any notion that a much-vaunted “reset” of ties sought by the United States in recent years is alive.
Obama’s move came after Putin gave asylum to former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden, whose public flight after revealing U.S. surveillance programs was a major embarrassment for Washington.
Influential Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have sought a tougher response and have called on NATO to give membership to Georgia - with which Russia fought a brief war in 2008 - as part of an aggressive new policy against Moscow that would include weaning Europe off Russian energy supplies.
Senior U.S. officials though have stressed the need to keep up cooperation with Moscow.
“Let’s be clear. It is still an important relationship,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Thursday. “We have a lot of fish to fry, if you will, with the Russians. We have a lot of issues to engage with the Russians over.”
U.S. officials expect no breakthroughs when Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel meet their Russian counterparts Sergei Lavrov and Sergei Shoigu on Friday, but they say the very decision to go ahead with the talks despite the current frictions is significant in itself.
Moscow and Washington disagree over a long list of issues, from Syria’s civil war to human rights and Russia’s ban on homosexual “propaganda,” but there are some areas, critical to global security, where they have been able to work together.
Russia has been a U.S. partner in talks with Iran over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and this role is likely to take on more importance after signals from new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that he might be more willing to reach a deal with the West than his predecessor.
Last year Moscow joined the United States in condemning former Soviet ally North Korea’s launch of a ballistic missile and the United States and NATO rely on a complex web of transit routes through Russia and Central Asia to supply their war effort in landlocked Afghanistan.
U.S. officials cite this Northern Distribution Network for Afghanistan as “an example of where there’s a good partnership” and Washington will want to avoid any fight with Russia that could lead to this being closed down.
“We believe we need to continue to cooperate on areas where we can, where there’s progress to be made in the world, and Iran and North Korea are both certainly good examples of that,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a news briefing.
While Lavrov and Kerry have met multiple times to discuss ending the Syrian war, it will be the first time Hagel and Shoigu will meet face to face in the so-called 2 + 2 talks.
“We and they want to keep talking and keep exchanging views with the hope that over time we can break through on some core issues,” one U.S. official said.
Psaki said areas where there were disagreements like missile defense and human rights, and “certainly Edward Snowden” would be part of the discussions.
But a U.S. official said the American side would try again to ease Russian concerns about its missile defense plans.
Russia remains wary of U.S. missile defenses, despite Hagel’s announcement in March that Washington would forgo a new type of interceptor in Europe.
Dimitri Simes, a Russia expert and president of the Center for the National Interest think tank in Washington, said open discussions between Moscow and Washington were still the best way to resolve differences on issues like international terrorism, Afghanistan, and Syria.
“Russia is not a convenient partner in dealing with any of these matters, but they are an important partner,” Simes said. “I think the administration realizes that much. I think that is the reason they did not cancel the two plus two.”
Russia has remained a staunch backer of President Bashar al-Assad throughout the worsening conflict in Syria, much to Washington’s annoyance.
It is not clear whether Putin will soften that stance after U.S. ally Saudi Arabia offered economic incentives to Russia last week including a major arms deal if it scales back support for Assad.
Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Alistair Bell and David Brunnstrom