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Hillary Clinton faces tough task in mending Russia ties

Sergei Lavrov and Hillary Clinton

Sergei Lavrov and Hillary Clinton

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hopes to close a dark chapter in US-Russia relations when she meets Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov this week, but experts and officials say a major breakthrough will take time.

The Bush administration had fractious ties with Moscow, clashing over a US missile shield in Europe, Kosovo's independence, Russia's brief invasion of Georgia last year and how to get Iran to curb its nuclear programme.

Ms Clinton is set to meet Mr Lavrov on neutral territory in Geneva next Friday, after talks with Nato foreign ministers in Brussels - a European capital where US and Russian rhetoric has been brutal as Moscow opposed membership to the military alliance for ex-Soviet states of Georgia and Ukraine.

"This is a new relationship that they hope to develop and a positive one. There is a lot of business the secretary has to do with her counterpart," said State Department spokesman Robert Wood of the Lavrov-Clinton meeting.

"The United States and Russia have a complex relationship but we want to find common ground," he added.

Russia experts say Clinton will have a battle to repair relations and work better on challenges from the Arab-Israeli conflict to Iran and North Korea's nuclear programs.

A State Department official said it was hard to say whether Russia would pander to anti-American sentiment at home or turn over a new page.

"We have to be clear-eyed over the differences but see if we can make some practical progress in some areas," said the official. "I am not suggesting any breakthroughs," he added.

Former US ambassador to Moscow, Thomas Pickering, said Ms Clinton had an "enormous opportunity" to change the tone.

"She needs to establish a good, close personal relationship where there is trust," said Mr Pickering, ambassador during the administration of Clinton's husband, former President Bill Clinton.

Pickering said President Clinton had a "superb" relationship with Russia's then-President Boris Yeltsin but did not click in the same way with his successor Vladimir Putin, who as current Prime Minister is still a key player.

US Vice President Joe Biden signalled the Obama administration's wish to change tack with Russia, telling a security conference in Germany this month that it was time to hit the "reset" button with Moscow.

Groundwork for the Clinton-Lavrov meeting was also set by William Burns, the department's political director and also a former US ambassador to Russia, who went to Moscow this month with ideas to improve ties.

Burns indicated compromises on missile defence, telling Russian officials the Obama administration was willing to slow plans for a shield in eastern Europe if Russia agreed to help stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

"The obvious rationale has been concern over an Iranian threat and the extent that we can reduce that threat certainly shapes our view," said the State Department official.

"If we can make progress working with the Russians and our other partners to reduce and hopefully eliminate this threat then this will have an effect on how we look at those missile defence plans," he added.

A focal point of Ms Clinton's early talks will be a key strategic arms treaty, Start, aimed at reducing nuclear arms that is set to expire at the end of this year.

But with US negotiators not yet in place at the State Department, it could take time to get into the nitty-gritty of those negotiations.

Cooperation in tackling the global financial crisis is another area, as well as Afghanistan, where the Obama administration wants Russia's help to win that war.

Washington faces the closure of a key military air base in Kyrgyzstan and needs Russia's aid to diversify land supply routes for US and Nato troops fighting in Afghanistan.

Russia, for its part, hopes the new administration will revive a bilateral civilian nuclear pact, potentially worth billions of dollars in trade, which was withdrawn from the US Congress after the Georgia incursion.

Russia expert Charles Kupchan said while prospects were good for improved cooperation on a range of issues, Moscow would likely be the reluctant partner, playing up tensions with the United States to distract from domestic woes.

"If there is a party that drags its feet in the coming months, it is more likely to be Russia than the United States. I think the Obama administration will be all ears when it comes to new places for cooperation," said Mr Kupchan, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations.

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