Clinton 'Resets' Russian Ties -- and Language

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."

In the days leading up to the meeting, Clinton telegraphed the Obama administration's approach to Russia -- the United States will seek ways to cooperate on such issues as arms control and Iran's nuclear ambitions, while aggressively pushing back against Russian efforts to dominate its neighbors and European energy supplies.

"We don't want there to be any misunderstanding," Clinton told young political activists at the European Parliament in Brussels on Friday morning. "We are entering into our renewed relationship with our eyes open."

Holding the meeting in Geneva, the site of many Cold War arms control negotiations, evoked memories of the long conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. At the end of the Bush administration, "you had to go back to the Cold War" to find the same level of animosity, one U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the State Department.

Lavrov, a skilled negotiator, tried to intimidate Clinton's predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, at their initial meeting in 2005, presenting a long list of complaints. But that tough encounter came in the middle of President Bush's tenure, when relations were already on a downward slope and Russian assertiveness was soaring along with oil prices. Diplomats say the Rice-Lavrov relationship never recovered, with Lavrov taking particular delight in needling Rice.

Friday night, according to U.S. officials, Lavrov began the closed-door meeting by telling Clinton he had been closely reading her remarks, even what she had said that day in Brussels. At that point, said another U.S. official who has attended many meetings with Lavrov, he expected the foreign minister to detour into a difficult and polemical attack. But, instead, Lavrov turned the conversation, saying he wanted to search for ways to work together with the United States.

Clinton paved the way for a more cooperative session by persuading NATO foreign ministers on Thursday to restart high-level meetings of the NATO-Russia Council. That body has been suspended for seven months over anger at Russia's incursion into Georgia. Clinton won over objections from Lithuania and other countries once dominated by the Soviet Union by agreeing to strong language defending the independence of Georgia and the Baltic states.

At a news conference Friday before leaving Brussels for Geneva, Clinton also raised the possibility of Russia and the United States cooperating on missile defense, perhaps even to the point of a joint deployment, assuming the technology was proved to work. She emphasized that the effort to build sites for system components in Poland and the Czech Republic -- which Moscow has claimed is aimed at Russia -- is instead targeted against Iran.

In the wake of Clinton's remarks on missile defense, and a letter from President Obama to his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, outlining ideas, the Russians have begun thinking about ways to cooperate on missile defense in Europe and reducing the Iranian nuclear threat, U.S. officials said after the meal.

"Missile defense is in response to the growing danger of Iran," the senior U.S. official said. "If the danger is mitigated, we'd look again" at the missile defense deployment in Europe. But officials conceded the Russian reaction thus far is tentative and vague, and the effort to link Iran and missile defense may not amount to much.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company