Putin, Rice Resolve to Tone Down Harsh Rhetoric

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov did not make any breakthroughs on major issues the U.S. and Russia disagree upon.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov did not make any breakthroughs on major issues the U.S. and Russia disagree upon. (By Alexander Zemlianichenko -- Associated Press)
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 16, 2007

MOSCOW, May 15 -- President Vladimir Putin and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice agreed at a meeting here Tuesday to tone down increasingly strident rhetoric between the two countries at a time of tension over Kosovo's future status, U.S. plans for a missile defense system in Eastern Europe and other issues.

"I have said while I'm here that the rhetoric is not helpful, that it is disturbing to Americans who are trying to do our best to maintain an even relationship," Rice told a small group of reporters after her sit-down with Putin at his country home outside Moscow. Putin, in a May 9 speech, made a reference to "new threats," and some felt he was comparing the United States to Nazi Germany.

"There are going to be old scars to overcome," Rice said. "There is no doubt about that. There will be times when something like missile defense may hit an old nerve. But the relationship needs to be free of exaggerated rhetoric."

Russian officials, who have their own concerns about American statements, particularly those that accuse Russia of democratic backsliding and unfair political and economic pressure on its immediate neighbors, echoed Rice's words after the meeting.

Putin "supported the understanding by the American side that rhetoric in public exchanges should be toned down and we should focus on concrete issues," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said to reporters.

But there were no breakthroughs on the major issues that continue to afflict the relationship. Russia remains opposed to a plan, backed by the United States and the European Union, to grant independence to the Serbian province of Kosovo. Russia, which could veto the proposal at the United Nations, said any accord must be agreed to by Serbia, which has rejected the prospect of Kosovo's independence.

The province, which has an ethnic Albanian majority, has been administered by the United Nations since the NATO alliance drove out Serbian forces in 1998 -- a war that Russia strongly opposed. "Ultimately the time has come to make de jure what is de facto, and that's the point that I made to President Putin," Rice said.

But Lavrov said "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."

The two sides also remain divided on U.S. plans to build a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. American officials have said the system is relatively small and designed to protect the United States and its allies from a missile attack from Iran.

But Russian officials harbor deep suspicions that the system could ultimately be expanded and become a defense against Russia's huge strategic missile forces. "Russia confirmed its stance," Lavrov said, indicating there was no movement on the issue.

Rice said the United States would build the system with or without Russia's agreement. "I don't think that anyone expects the United States to permit somehow a veto on American security interests. But we want to do it in a cooperative way," she said.

The new willingness to use more moderate words while still disagreeing is likely to be tested as both countries enter election cycles, analysts said. "I think we are coming into a shaky period because of elections, and I think the understanding is let's try and not have" a bullfight, said Viktor Kremenyuk, deputy director of the U.S.A.-Canada Institute in Moscow. "But people are unhappy with the U.S. and believe the U.S. is hostile. That is the dominant state of the public mind."

Expression of that feeling appeared to reach a new peak in the speech Putin gave May 9, the day Russia celebrates victory over Germany in World War II.

"We do not have the right to forget the causes of any war, which must be sought in the mistakes and errors of peacetime," Putin said. "Moreover, in our time, these threats are not diminishing. They are only transforming, changing their appearance. In these new threats, as during the time of the Third Reich, are the same contempt for human life and the same claims of exceptionality and diktat in the world."

Some Russian commentators said Putin was comparing the United States to Nazi Germany, a reading that alarmed and angered Washington. The Kremlin later said Putin was actually referring to the rise of violent extremism globally.

Rice said she did not bring up the speech with Putin because she was satisfied with Russia's explanation. "I don't want the considerable degree of cooperation that we have on a number of issues to be lost," Rice said, citing increasing agreement on the dangers of Iran's nuclear program as well as cooperation on North Korea, nonproliferation and terrorism.

"It's one reason the overheated rhetoric is particularly damaging, because it obscures the fact that on some of the most sensitive issues that one can imagine . . . we have good relations," Rice said.


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