Relations between the United States and Russia are testier than they've been in years. The two countries are at odds over human rights, the civil war in Syria, and even the adoption of Russian orphans by American families. But former American diplomats say things aren't as bad as they may seem.

NPR's Corey Flintoff has that story from Moscow.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Four former U.S. ambassadors to the Soviet Union and Russia were in Moscow this week for talks with their counterparts: former Russian ambassadors to the United States. The ambassadors represent more than two decades of cumulative experience in dealing with the Soviet Union and Russia, beginning in the days when nuclear arms control was the overriding issue. John Beyrle, who served as the U.S. ambassador from 2008 to 2012, said the biggest change in relations between the two countries is that trade is now the top priority.

JOHN BEYRLE: Most of us started our careers working in the strategic arms control field, but we've come to the recognition that that is shifting, and it's being replaced in a very healthy and a very normal way by a stronger and more consequential economic relationship.

FLINTOFF: It's an issue that will require tough diplomacy. Both the United States and the European Union have accused Russia of putting up trade barriers since becoming a member of the World Trade Organization last year. The former ambassadors acknowledged that the U.S. and Russia have been at odds on key foreign policy issues, such as how to handle the civil war in Syria. Thomas Pickering, who served as ambassador to Russia from 1993 to 1996, says he and his colleagues met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov this week and came away with a sense that Russia is more flexible than it might appear.

THOMAS PICKERING: The Russian position has been portrayed in the United States as very rigid, very hard, very unmoving. On the other hand, we heard at least a willingness to explore ideas and to try to think through the process.

FLINTOFF: Russia has joined with China to veto United Nations resolutions that would sanction the Syrian government, but Pickering says both sides want to see a humanitarian cease-fire in the conflict that's already taken 70,000 lives. He says both sides agree that there should be talks without preconditions. The former ambassadors also acknowledged that relations between the two countries have been disrupted by domestic politics on both sides. The Obama administration is working on a list of Russian officials who would be banned from visiting or keeping assets in the United States because of their alleged involvement in human rights violations.

The list is required by the so-called Magnitsky Act, passed by Congress last year. It's named for a Russian lawyer who died in prison after accusing Russian officials of committing a massive tax fraud. Russian politicians say the act is blatant interference in Russia's domestic affairs. James Collins, who served as ambassador from 1997 to 2001, says he thinks publication of the list will only reinflame the controversy.

JAMES COLLINS: It's going to be seen as reopening all of the arguments that went on during and right after the passage of the Magnitsky bill, except this time it'll be made concrete. And so we'll go through, I think, a very unfortunate period.

FLINTOFF: Russia retaliated for the passage of the Magnitsky Act with a law barring American families from adopting Russian orphans. Ultimately, Collins says, the two sides need to find a way to talk about sensitive political issues without resorting to hasty action or heated rhetoric. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow.

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