U.S.-Russia Tension Evident in Diplomacy

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President Bush meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg, ahead of the G-8 summit there. Their two nations are trying to work out their differences on some very serious issues, including Iraq and the nuclear programs under development in Iran and North Korea.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This summit comes at a time when relations between the United States and Russia are touchy, to say to the least. That's been reflected most recently in the unplanned public show of displeasure between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

NPR's Mike Shuster has more.

MIKE SHUSTER reporting:

Whatever you call it - bickering, sniping, a spat - it is now clear that there is real ongoing tension between the secretary of state and the Russian foreign minister. From most accounts it began several months ago, but the evidence was unavoidable on June 29th, when an audio feed of a dinner meeting of the Group of Eight foreign ministers in Moscow was mistakenly left open. The topic was Iraq, the recent capture and killing of Russian diplomats there, and how the G8 would express its support for the Iraqi government. The testy interaction between Rice and Lavrov dominated the meeting.

Ms. CONDOLEEZZA RICE (United States Secretary of State): We have to be very careful in how we quote involve the international community in their political affairs. They have an elected government. They - that's how they...

Mr. SERGEI LAVROV (Russian Foreign Minister): I did not suggest this. What I did say was not involvement in the political process, but involvement of the international community in the support of the political process.

Ms. RICE: Well, what does that mean?

Mr. LAVROV: I think you understand.

Ms. RICE: No, I don't.

Mr. LAVROV: No, Conde, I'm not saying that we should deprive them of the money at this new era in Iraq's development...

SHUSTER: The two diplomats continued to spar like that as they haggled word by word over the text of a statement that would be issued after the dinner. This is certainly far from the first time that American and Russian diplomats have gone head to head on issues they disagree about. But it is the first time that their disagreements have been on such public display.

James Collins, a former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, knows both Rice and Lavrov, and counsels not to make much of the personal testiness.

Mr. JAMES COLLINS (Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia): They are both straight-talking. They are both strong defenders of their country's interests. Sure, at times things can get a bit testy when there are high-stakes issues involved, but I also know that they treat each other with respect.

SHUSTER: Michael McFaul is not so sure of that. McFaul is a Russia scholar from Stanford University, where Rice was provost. He believes that antipathy goes much deeper than what was audible in Moscow.

Professor MICHAEL MCFAUL (Stanford University): It's very serious. It's real, and the fact that it's become public, I think, only underscores that fact. I know on our side, in the State Department, they don't really respect Mr. Lavrov, but they have to deal with him. On the Russian side, I hear much worse about how he personally feels about Secretary Rice, that he really, truly doesn't respect her, doesn't think she's serious, and has no chemistry with her.

SHUSTER: Diplomats and analysts insist that even if there is an element of personal animosity between Rice and Lavrov, it is a reflection of the current difficulties in the broader relationship between the U.S. and Russia. Washington and Moscow must work together on a set of very difficult set of problems in the world right now, from the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea to the explosive conflicts in the Middle East, to the politics of an energy-hungry world.

This was just an unusual window into what happens among top diplomats, says Coit Blacker, head of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford, and a colleague of Rice's for 20 years.

Mr. COIT BLACKER (Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Institute for International Studies, Stanford University): What we heard coming out of the Rice-Lavrov exchange, I think, is highly suggestive of where the relationship itself is: in part actually pretty warm and quite constructive, and in other areas a little more difficult.

SHUSTER: One of the most difficult areas has been Iran. The Iran nuclear issue had just been referred to the U.N. Security Council when Rice, Lavrov and other foreign ministers met in New York in May for a working dinner. It was then that reports first surfaced that the language between the two had become barbed.

It may in fact be the divisions in both the U.S. and Russia over how to view the Moscow-Washington relationship that has complicated the work of both senior diplomats. Former ambassador to Moscow James Collins points out that there are hard and soft-liners in the Bush administration and in the Putin administration as well.

Mr. COLLINS: On both sides I think it's fair to say that you have plenty of people who were toting up grievances, and those often are the people who set more of the public tone than the people who want to get on with doing something. It's always a bit of a testy situation in the last year or so.

SHUSTER: And that, inevitably, has infected the interaction between Rice and Lavrov, says Michael McFaul.

Mr. MCFAUL: In a way, their personal relationship, I think, is the more honest statement of where the bilateral relationship really is, and so in a way it's just a reflection of that, not necessarily a personal relationship that's getting in the way of an otherwise positive bilateral.

SHUSTER: But don't expect to see that reflected in the pictures of President Bush and President Putin. Their chief diplomats spar privately and publicly so that they don't have to.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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