- The Washington Times - Friday, May 8, 2009

President Obama on Thursday stepped up his courting of Russia - a country that is key to U.S. hopes of derailing Iran’s nuclear weapons program - by meeting with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the White House.

The Obama administration has made much ado over its intent to “reset” relations with Russia - after the Kremlin’s irritation with the policies of President George W. Bush - and the meeting reciprocates the willingness of Russian presidents to meet with U.S. secretaries of state when they visit Moscow.

“I think we have an excellent opportunity to reset the relationship between the United States and Russia on a whole host of issues,” Mr. Obama said after his meeting with Mr. Lavrov.

The meeting was a prelude to the president’s trip to Moscow in July, when he will meet with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to discuss efforts toward a new agreement on reducing nuclear arsenals. The current pact expires at the end of this year.

The decision to meet with a foreign minister was a sign of respect that also occurred under the Bush administration but was more frequent under the administration of the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton.

Mr. Clinton also met with other important Russian personalities to bolster the government of President Boris Yeltsin, said Toby Gati, senior Russia specialist on the National Security Council during Mr. Clinton’s first term.

“If you are going to reset the relationship, you want to reset it up, not down,” she said. “It’s a way of saying: ‘You matter.’ What’s more valuable than the president’s time?”

Mr. Lavrov spoke of working with the U.S. on “a basis of respect.”

Mr. Obama’s meeting with Mr. Lavrov was “an effort by the administration to send a signal to the Russians that we take you seriously, and we want to hear what you have to say,” said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“The Russians have complained over the last decade that the United States has given them the cold shoulder and hasn’t accorded Moscow the voice that it deserves,” he said.

Mr. Bush enraged the Kremlin with his push for an expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization into Eastern Europe and efforts to build a missile defense system there. The White House said neither policy was a threat to Russia, but Russian leader Vladimir Putin did not see it that way.

Russia felt that the U.S. was still viewing it as the weakened state that it was after the collapse of the Soviet Union and was determined to reassert its presence as a world power.

Mr. Bush, through the end of his presidency, enjoyed warm personal relations with Mr. Putin, now Russia’s prime minister. But the Obama administration has mocked Mr. Bush’s reliance on his friendship with Mr. Putin.

The limits of the Bush administration’s leverage over Russia stood out last summer when entreaties from Mr. Bush to Mr. Putin did nothing to stop Russia’s invasion of the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

“I think there are instances over the course of the past many years where personal relationships, gazing into one’s eyes, may not have borne out concrete accomplishments,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said last month.

Mr. Lavrov on Thursday talked about the U.S.-Russia relationship as one based on realpolitik.

“I think we work in a very pragmatic, businesslike way on the basis of the common interest whenever our positions coincide,” he said.

The Kremlin, which sells arms to Iran even as the West tries to stop its movement toward a nuclear weapons capability, has the potential to play a key role in helping Mr. Obama walk Tehran back from this pursuit.

Russia also influences supply routes into Afghanistan, where the U.S. is fighting Taliban militants and al Qaeda operatives.

“The administration knows that to succeed in Afghanistan and Iran - two top priorities - the road leads through Moscow. They get it and they’re trying to fix the relationship,” said Clifford Kupchan, a Russia analyst at the Eurasia Group.

• Barbara Slavin and Nicholas Kralev contributed to this report.

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