Putin agrees to tone down rhetoric

The Baltimore Sun

MOSCOW -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice persuaded Russian President Vladimir V. Putin yesterday to tone down the harsh words he has directed at the United States in recent months, but their talks failed to yield any breakthroughs on independence for Kosovo or on U.S. plans for a missile shield in Europe.

Putin, a longtime critic of the Iraq war, surprised the Bush administration in February when, during a speech he gave in Munich, Germany, he branded U.S. foreign policy "extremely dangerous" and denounced "unilateral" U.S. military actions that "bring us to the abyss of one conflict after another."

On May 9, the day Russians commemorate the victory over Nazi Germany, Putin delivered a speech in Red Square in which he talked of "new threats" based on "the same pretensions to world exclusivity and diktat as in the Third Reich," a comment that some observers said was directed at the United States.

The rhetoric further aggravated frayed relations between Washington and Moscow, which have become increasingly strained during Putin's seven years in power. A primary purpose of Rice's visit was to ease tensions with Moscow and to try to renew constructive dialogue.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who sat in on Rice's talks with Putin at the president's residence outside Moscow, said Putin reacted positively to Rice's suggestion that the recent harsh rhetoric was unproductive.

"The president supported the American side's understanding that it's necessary to tone down the rhetoric in public statements and concentrate on concrete business," Lavrov said.

Rice said she thought her message got through. "I sure hope so, because I don't think you ever hear President Bush use certain kinds of rhetoric about Russia, because he respects the partnership," she said.

Rice was far less successful in her effort to convince Putin that a U.S.-planned missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland is needed to defend Europe and U.S. troops based there against a possible attack by Iran.

Iran does not have long-range ballistic missile capability but could develop it by 2015, the Bush administration argues. U.S. leaders want the $3.5 billion system operational by 2012. The plan calls for placing 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic.

The Kremlin has not been swayed by Washington's warnings that Iran might develop long-range missile capability. Moscow also worries that a missile shield might be changed in ways that would transform it into a threat to Russian national security.

Rice discussed the shield with Putin and Lavrov, but Lavrov said Russia still regards the system as a threat. "Our stance on missile defense was reaffirmed," he said.

Rice said talks with Moscow about the shield will continue but that the United States will proceed with the plan even if Russia continues to oppose it.

"The United States needs to be able to move forward to use technology to defend itself, and we're going to do that," Rice said. "I don't think that anyone expects the United States to permit somehow a veto on American security interests."

Rice also failed to dent Russian opposition to a U.N. plan, supported by the United States, that would grant supervised independence to Kosovo, a Serbian province. Russia, which regards Serbia as a staunch ally, has resisted the idea because it fears setting a precedent for breakaway provinces in former Soviet republics, such as the unrecognized autonomous regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia.

Lavrov said the best course is for Serbia and Kosovo to continue talks. Rice said she doubts that a solution can be reached that does not entail independence for Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians make up the majority of the population.

Alex Rodriguez writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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