Clinton 'Resets' Russian Ties -- and Language

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has predicted that the U.S. and Russia will complete a new strategic arms reduction treaty by the end of this year and that Moscow and Washington can find common ground on other issues. Video by AP
By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 7, 2009

GENEVA, March 6 -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Friday presented her Russian counterpart with a mock "reset button," a gesture designed to symbolize the U.S. desire to retool relations that grew testy during the Bush administration. But an American error in translating "reset" demonstrated how the two countries can still talk past each other and gave Sergei Lavrov, the often-combative Russian foreign minister, an opportunity to tweak Clinton.

Both ministers were all smiles and good cheer as they emerged from their first face-to-face encounter -- a two-hour dinner on neutral ground in Switzerland. They said they had agreed to work closely on stemming proliferation of nuclear materials and reducing their nuclear arsenals, including what Clinton called "the highest priority to our governments" -- completing negotiations on a strategic arms treaty that expires at the end of the year.

"It was a very productive meeting of the minds," Clinton said, one in which the two diplomats focused on common interests and had "frank exchanges" over deep differences about issues such as Russian interference in Georgia and civil liberties in Russia. On such disputes, she said, "we need more trust, predictability and progress." She said the two sides now needed to "translate our words into deeds."

Lavrov, for his part, declared he had a "wonderful personal relationship" with Clinton, adding, "We did not agree on everything, of course, but we agreed to work on every issue." But flashes of Russian annoyance were also evident as he publicly defended the possible sale of missile components to Iran and attacked U.S. recognition of Kosovo.

The meeting was perceived by the Obama administration as a pivotal moment in trying to rebuild the relationship with Russia, and it set the stage for a meeting between the two countries' presidents on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit next month. The administration is preparing a set of proposals for that meeting, including dangling economic cooperation as the Russian economy swoons because of plummeting oil prices.

To that end, before their meal in a hotel conference room with a panoramic view of Geneva, Clinton presented Lavrov with a palm-size box wrapped in a green ribbon. Lavrov opened it and pulled out a yellow-and-black plastic box with a red button that clicked -- a symbol of the Obama administration's determination to "reset" the relationship, as Vice President Biden phrased it last month in Germany.

Lavrov, a tough-minded diplomat, burst out in a smile. At Clinton's urging, Lavrov joined her in jointly pressing the button down for the benefit of the cameras.

The word "Reset" was beneath the button, and the Russian word "Peregruzka" was above it.

"We worked hard to get the right Russian word," Clinton said. "Do you think we got it?"

Lavrov, who never misses an opportunity for a diplomatic jab, bluntly said, "You got it wrong." The word, he pointed out, was two letters off -- it should have been "Perezagruzka." What was there, he added, actually means "overcharge."

Clinton burst out in laughter and declared, "We won't let you do that to us."

At the post-dinner news conference, an unusually jovial Lavrov made a joking reference to the gaffe. "I can say we have already managed to achieve a specific practical result," he declared with mock seriousness. "We have reached an agreement regarding how 'reset' should sound both in Russian and English."

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