MOSCOW (AFP) — US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Friday holds her first bilateral talks with her Russian counterpart as Washington seeks to "reboot" ties plagued by discord over Iran and missile defence.
Her meeting in Geneva with Sergei Lavrov will be a test of whether President Barack Obama's emphasis on diplomacy can improve US-Russian relations, which were badly strained during the presidency of George W. Bush.
It will use "the opportunity of a new American administration to capitalise on the many areas where the US and Russia have common interests and can work in a common fashion," a senior US diplomat, Daniel Fried, said last week.
Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, said that "the two sides are exchanging a number of positive signals."
"One can expect progress in relations, more mutual flexibility, but no breakthrough. No decisive changes, but the parties are ready to make concessions."
The meeting comes after Obama revealed he had sent an overture to Moscow in the form of a confidential letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
The letter sparked a storm of speculation after The New York Times reported that Obama had suggested a trade-off in which he would back off deployment of missile-defence facilities in Eastern Europe that have angered Russia.
In return, according to the Times, Moscow would use its influence with Iran to stop Tehran from developing long-range missiles.
Both the White House and the Kremlin denied that any such grand bargain had been suggested, and Medvedev said it was "not productive" to link the two issues, signalling that Russia would not be easily swayed.
Obama denied that the letter had contained "some sort of quid pro quo" and said: "We've had a good exchange between ourselves and the Russians. I've said that we need to reset or reboot the relationship there."
Moscow fiercely opposes US plans to place elements of a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, viewing them as a threat to Russian security despite US assurances that they are directed against Iran.
Obama has said he would back the missile shield only if it is proven to work and is cost-effective, which many believe is a signal that he plans to shelve the project, which was strongly backed by Bush.
Meanwhile Washington is unhappy about Moscow's support for Tehran, including its role in building a nuclear power plant in Iran and blocking tougher sanctions over Iran's controversial nuclear programme.
Asked about Obama's letter to Medvedev, Clinton said the missile defence system "has always been intended to deter any missile that might come from Iran."
"That's been our stated position. It remains our position. We have explained that to the Russians before," Clinton said, adding that she would discuss the issue at length with Lavrov in Geneva.
Another topic on the agenda is expected to be the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), a landmark Cold War-era nuclear arms control treaty that expires on December 5.
Clinton has committed to a speedy renegotiation of START after talks on the treaty made little progress under Bush.
START, which limits the number of missiles and warheads that each side may have, led to huge reductions in the US and Russian nuclear arsenals after it was signed in 1991.
The treaty contains a clause allowing it be extended for five years if both sides agree, but Lavrov said this week that Russia preferred an entirely new treaty leading to deeper reductions.
Lavrov also said his meeting with Clinton would lay the groundwork for an upcoming meeting of Obama and Medvedev, to take place during the G20 summit in London next month, Interfax news agency reported.
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