Secretary of State Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov finally speak

February 17, 2013

Secretary of State John F. Kerry might be wishing he had one of those old red hotline phones to Moscow after it took six days for Russia’s foreign minister to return a call.

Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke for nearly 30 minutes Sunday about the civil war in Syria and North Korea’s recent nuclear test, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. The two agreed to look for a date in the next several weeks for their first meeting since Kerry took over as the top U.S. diplomat, Nuland added.

Kerry had called Lavrov on Feb. 11, hours after North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions approved by Russia, the United States and other nations. Lavrov, who was traveling in Africa, didn’t call back that day, nor the next, nor for several more days in which State Department reporters had fun ribbing Nuland about the snub.

On Thursday, Nuland insisted Kerry was “relaxed” about the unusual silence from Russia, a difficult partner whose cooperation Kerry will need on numerous international diplomatic problems.

“From our perspective, the secretary would like to talk to him. It’s up to him whether he wants to take that opportunity,” she said.

On Friday, one reporter asked Nuland whether Kerry had found his “missing in action” counterpart.

“They have not connected,” Nuland replied.

“This is getting kind of ridiculous, isn’t it?” another reporter asked.

“As I’ve been saying all week, we’re making it clear that we would like to talk if they want to. If they are too busy or otherwise engaged, the offer stands, and we’ll continue to do other diplomacy,” Nuland responded.

Kerry and Lavrov had spoken once during Kerry’s first week on the job, a courtesy call during which both men agreed to keep lines of communication open, Nuland said at the time.

Lavrov is famously prickly and has a history of needling American counterparts of both political parties. His relationship with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a Republican, was cordial on the surface, but her face turned stony when Lavrov lectured her during joint public appearances. Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton laughed off Lavrov’s sometimes condescending tone, but took the opportunity on the day of their last meeting to criticize what she said was a Russian effort to “re-Sovietize” its neighbors.

The Obama administration has sought Russian help on Syria for more than a year, with little to show for it. Russia remains Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s most influential ally and arms merchant, and Russia has refused to back stiffer international sanctions or condemnations at the U.N. Security Council. Russia has also apparently refused to intercede with Assad to persuade him to cut a deal with the increasingly powerful rebels trying to unseat him.

“They discussed the importance of the U.S. and Russia using their respective influence on the parties in support of a viable political transition process” in Syria, Nuland said Sunday.

Anne Gearan is a national politics correspondent for The Washington Post.
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