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Rice, Russians make nice but deep rifts remain

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice won agreement Tuesday in talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin to tone down Russian rhetoric perceived as hostile to Washington, although she gave no ground on major disagreements that have riled Moscow.
Condoleezza Rice, Sergey Lavrov
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov appear at a news conference in Moscow. Rice met with Lavrov in talks aimed partly at finding agreement on the future of Kosovo. Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice won agreement Tuesday in talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin to tone down Russian rhetoric perceived as hostile to Washington, although she gave no ground on major disagreements that have riled Moscow.

Rice said no country could “veto” U.S. plans to set up a missile defense system in Europe that is vehemently opposed by Russia and that the United States still supports a U.N. plan for independence for the Serbian province of Kosovo.

Still, she and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov were collegial at a news conference where they were peppered with questions about contentious issues but stressed areas of cooperation, including the war on terrorism and halting the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

“There will always be situations where our positions do not coincide,” Lavrov acknowledged, but attributed talk of a “catastrophic” breakdown in relations to media speculation about a new Cold War emerging between the former foes.

He said Russia still believed that European missile defense was a threat to it and had not changed its position.

Rice, speaking earlier, repeated U.S. offers to cooperate with Russia on the system but vowed that the United States would forge ahead despite Russian opposition.

“The United States needs to be able to move forward to use technology to defend itself and we’re going to do that,” she said. “I don’t think that anyone expects the United States to permit somehow a veto on American security interests.”

No agreement on Kosovo
On Kosovo, where Russia opposes independence for the province from its longtime ally Serbia and fears it could set a dangerous precedent for some restive Russian and former Russian republics, Rice and Lavrov said no progress had been made in bridging differences.

“I can’t see a ready solution,” Rice said at the news conference with Lavrov.

“It was agreed to search for a solution on Kosovo that would be acceptable for all, but there is no such solution immediately in sight,” Lavrov said.

Rice went into her evening meeting with Lavrov after having rapped the Russians for recent comments by Putin and other officials that she said had not been “helpful” and obscured positive developments and cooperation on other issues.

“We did talk about the need to keep the temperature down,” Rice said after meeting Putin at his home outside Moscow, describing some remarks as “overheated rhetoric,” in particular the president’s recent reference in a speech to Nazi Germany, widely perceived as criticism of the United States.

“We are going to have our differences, there is no doubt about that. There are going to be old scars to overcome, there is no doubt about that ... But the relationship needs to be free of exaggerated rhetoric,” she said.

Asked whether she thought her message was received by the Russians, Rice replied: “I sure hope so, because I don’t think you ever hear President Bush use certain kinds of rhetoric about Russia because he respects the partnership.”

She said she accepted Russia’s explanation that Putin had been referring to “extremists” in his speech.

Rhetoric on ‘rhetoric’
And after the Putin-Rice meeting, Lavrov said: “The president supported the American side’s understanding that it’s necessary to tone down the rhetoric in public statements and concentrate on concrete business.”

But at the news conference, Lavrov appeared to step back, saying that “it would be more appropriate to consider the statements ... as an invitation to a more fair and frank dialogue.”

There has been growing transoceanic tension about the U.S. missile defense plan, concern in Washington about Moscow’s treatment of its neighbors and steps Putin has taken to consolidate power in the Kremlin — seen as democratic backsliding — as Russia prepares for presidential and parliamentary elections next year.

Rice arrived in Moscow accepting that ties were tense but also rejecting suggesting the “Cold War” comparison.

“It is a big, complicated relationship, but it is not one that is anything like the implacable hostility” between the United States and the Soviet Union for a half-century after World War II.

“It is not an easy time in the relationship,” Rice added, “but it is also not, I think, a time in which cataclysmic things are affecting the relationship or catastrophic things are happening in the relationship.”

She noted that the United States and Russia are working together in numerous areas: on Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programs, the global spread of weapons of mass destruction and efforts to achieve Middle East peace.

Despite the agreement to cool down the rhetoric, a planned event at which Rice and Putin were to be photographed together and make brief remarks was canceled by the Kremlin and a senior Russian diplomat on Monday warned the U.S. not to try to go it alone in world affairs.

The missile-defense flap
In April, simmering Russian anger over U.S. plans to place missile defense components in Poland and the Czech Republic, both former Warsaw Pact members, boiled over despite Washington’s pledges to cooperate with Moscow on the system.

Last month, hours before the United States and its NATO allies met in Norway to discuss the matter, Putin threatened to suspend Russia’s participation in a key treaty limiting military deployments in Europe.

Russia views U.S. activity in its former sphere of influence with growing suspicion. Just last week, Putin denounced “disrespect for human life, claims to global exclusiveness and dictate, just as it was in the time of the Third Reich.”