Clinton's agenda for Russia trip reflects improving but fragile relationship

By Mary Beth Sheridan and Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 18, 2010

MOSCOW -- A year after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton presented a mock "reset" button to Russia's foreign minister, the two nuclear giants have significantly improved their tattered relationship, making progress on U.S. priorities such as Iran and Afghanistan and closing in on a major arms-control agreement, officials from both countries say.

But it has not been easy. As Clinton arrives here Thursday morning for a two-day visit, her agenda reflects the continuing fragility of the new partnership and lingering tensions between the former Cold War foes.

Clinton plans to discuss negotiations on a replacement for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which have dragged on beyond the pact's expiration in December. She also will talk about possible new sanctions against Iran, an idea that Russia has tentatively accepted but in a milder form than that pushed by the United States and European allies.

The two nations will also review their cooperation with regard to Afghanistan. A Russian agreement to allow the U.S. military to fly troops and equipment over Russian territory is beginning to bear fruit, after months of red tape.

"I think the past year has been successful," said Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the upper house of the Russian parliament. That's particularly true, he said, if "we keep in mind what the level of bilateral relations was when Obama came to power. It was less than zero."

Relations became strained over the George W. Bush administration's support for democracy movements in former Soviet republics and plans for an ambitious missile-defense system. The Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008 produced a deep chill.

In early 2009, 38 percent of Russians had a "very good or generally good" attitude toward the United States, according to a poll by Russia's Levada Center cited by the news agency Interfax. By early this year, the figure was 54 percent, with the number of people reporting a negative attitude tumbling from 49 percent to 31 percent.

Clinton is traveling to Moscow primarily for a meeting of the Quartet, a diplomatic grouping of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations that is mediating efforts to bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians. But she will tackle major U.S.-Russia issues in talks with President Dmitry Medvedev and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Russia's attitude toward sanctions against Iran illustrates the promise and uncertainty of the new partnership. During the negotiations on three previous U.N. Security Council resolutions penalizing Iran for its nuclear program, Russia was the key skeptic, dragging out the talks. But this time around, it has dropped its objections to sanctions, after months of persuasion by U.S. officials and continued Iranian defiance of international concern over its nuclear facilities.

"We now have a shared diagnostic of the problem," said a senior U.S. administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter frankly. "We're in negotiations on the substance of that [sanctions language] now. We're not arguing over whether there should be sanctions or not."

Still, the Russian support has its limits. A Russian official familiar with the issue said his government does not back broad economic sanctions and instead supports targeted penalties to curb nuclear-weapons proliferation. And although the U.S. government is pressing for a Security Council vote soon, "we still believe we have a window of opportunity to engage with Iran diplomatically, before sanctions," said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Stephen Sestanovich, a Russia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the case is "a really good example of how the administration has taken the relationship further than before. You've got the Russian president saying rather stiff things to Iran in public. But you also have most of his subordinates walking it back. And I think it's completely up for grabs what's the result."

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