Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Turkey on the last stop of what might be called her outreach trip. She's been trying to show that the Obama administration is willing to test the waters with countries like Syria and Iran. On Friday night, she broke the ice with Russia.
The setting was on neutral ground, a dinner at a hotel in Geneva. Clinton, hoping for a fresh start in U.S.-Russian relations, came bearing a gift for Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov — a plastic red button with the word "reset" in English and Russian.
"We worked hard to get the right Russian word. Do you think we got it?" she asked Lavrov.
"You got it wrong," he told her. "It should be 'perezagryuzka.' This says, 'peregruzka,' which means 'overcharged.'" The room broke out in laughter.
Her aides promised to fix the mistake during the dinner, jokingly asking reporters if anyone had a label-making device equipped with a Russian spell-checker. And the secretary managed to turn the mistake into a message.
"In a way, that word that was on the button turns out to be also true," Clinton said. "We are resetting, and because we are resetting, the minister and I have an overload of work."
At their joint news conference, Clinton said she and Lavrov are both very practical people and had come up with a work plan for the two countries to be leaders in nuclear security. The plan will include talks on how to replace the strategic arms reduction treaty before it expires.
"We intend to have an agreement by the end of this year," Clinton said. "This is of the highest priority to our governments. I believe we will be instructed by both of our presidents and we are going to get to work immediately."
Speaking privately, U.S. officials said they noticed a big difference in tone. U.S.-Russian relations were in a very bad place when President Barack Obama was sworn in, one official explained, adding even the Russians recognized that the relationship had gone too far off track.
Lavrov, who had a notoriously bad relationship with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, was asked whether the dinner in Geneva put U.S.-Russian ties — at least on a personal level — on a better footing.
"I do hope that Hillary will agree with me the question is quite easy to answer," Lavrov said. "I venture to say that we have a wonderful personal relationship."
Still, Lavrov defended Russia's planned sales of missiles to Iran — an issue Clinton raised with him. And both sides are still trying to work through differences over missile defense. One U.S. official said the Obama administration wants Russia to help reduce the Iranian threat — not just show good will. And if the threat is reduced, Washington has suggested it may not push to install missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Lavrov seems to be responding well to the overtures, saying he appreciated the administration's "comprehensive review of Iranian policy" and its readiness to listen to other countries — including Russia.
Whether the improved atmospherics can translate into cooperation remains to be seen. Obama is expected to have his first face-to-face meeting with his Russian counterpart on the sidelines of an international conference in London early next month.
As for Clinton, she's wrapping up her week-long trip in Turkey trying to overcome some of the lingering problems in that relationship left over from the Bush administration and the war in Iraq.