Russia's Vladimir Putin bombards Hillary Clinton with complaints about trade

Secretary of State Clinton takes part in a wreath-laying at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow. She answered Putin's complaints with remarks on cooperation between the United States and Russia.
Secretary of State Clinton takes part in a wreath-laying at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow. She answered Putin's complaints with remarks on cooperation between the United States and Russia. (Mikhail Metzel/associated Press)
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By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 20, 2010

MOSCOW -- Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin greeted visiting Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Friday with a volley of complaints about trade, while another top Russian official voiced caution about the Obama administration's campaign for tough sanctions on Iran.

Clinton's meetings, at the end of a two-day trip, reflected continuing tensions in the U.S.-Russia relationship a year after the Obama administration launched a "reset." Although the two sides have moved closer on a range of issues such as arms control and Afghanistan, cooperation remains elusive.

Putin, whom many consider the real power in Russia, agreed only at the last minute to receive Clinton. He then used what was supposed to be a ceremonial photo opportunity at his ornate dacha outside Moscow to criticize the drop in U.S. trade during the global economic crisis, Russia's difficulties in joining the World Trade Organization, and U.S. sanctions that have affected Russian companies -- an apparent reference to penalties on firms doing business with Iran, Syria and North Korea.

Clinton appeared unfazed by the blunt lecture, which her aides chalked up simply to a politician's desire to impress the domestic TV audience. She highlighted how the two sides are close to agreement on a pact to succeed the expired Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, and mentioned a recent visit by high-tech executives to Russia organized by the State Department and the White House. "If we continue to work together, we can move beyond the problems to greater opportunities," she said.

Clinton's agenda in Moscow was dominated by the almost complete agreement on each side to reduce its deployed long-range nuclear weapons and by the U.S.-led drive for tough sanctions on Iran. She also met with international mediators to discuss Middle East peace.

In a news conference earlier Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged caution on Iran sanctions, saying the Kremlin is not alarmed by the Islamic republic's nuclear program and wants to avoid "aggressive" penalties.

His remarks illustrated the difficulties the administration could face in getting the U.N. Security Council to approve new sanctions. One of Clinton's top aides, Undersecretary of State William J. Burns, told reporters on her plane Wednesday that the U.S. government feels "a sense of urgency" about Iran's nuclear program and that "it's time to demonstrate that there are consequences."

But Lavrov said Friday that reports on Iran published regularly by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) "do not give reasons for any sort of alarms." He spoke minutes after Clinton had said almost the opposite, pointing to the latest IAEA report, the first to say explicitly that Iran might be trying to build a nuclear bomb.

Lavrov acknowledged that the Kremlin is unhappy with Tehran's latest actions -- which include rejecting a Russian-backed plan aimed at quickly reducing Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium -- and that sanctions are sometimes "impossible to avoid."

He added, however, that sanctions "must not be aggressive, they must not paralyze" Iran, and they should not target the civilian population or have adverse humanitarian consequences. Instead, they should be focused on decision-makers, he said.

Analysts say the Russian government has been torn over the sanctions issue. On the one hand, it was stung to discover Iran's furtive nuclear work last year and angered by its rejection of international offers to ensure that its enriched uranium is used for peaceful purposes.

But powerful lobbies close to the Kremlin are involved in the sale of weapons and nuclear energy equipment to Iran and don't want to lose that trade, analysts say. In addition, the Kremlin fears pushing Iran to the point where it quits the international Non-Proliferation Treaty and bars nuclear inspectors, diplomats say.

Despite Lavrov's reluctant tone on sanctions, Clinton aides appeared heartened Friday. They noted that he had until recently been a harsh critic of such penalties and said his list of conditions for sanctions suggest he is ready to work on a new U.N. resolution.

The United States is focusing on sanctions that would target members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps and the businesses they operate. Russia had sought to water down three previous sets of U.N. sanctions, and its support will be crucial in approving a resolution.


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