[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/WORLD/europe/05/06/russia.canadian.diplomats/art.russia.lavrov.afp.gi.jpg caption="Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov."]
CNN Foreign Affairs Correspondent
U.S.-Russian relations “seriously deteriorated” late last year but don’t blame Moscow. That’s how Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sees it.
“The choice has not been ours,” he says in a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. “The plans of the previous U.S. administration have carried with them a serious damage to Russia’s security, security interests, and if realized would inevitably demand our response.”
Among other things, Lavrov points to U.S. plans to install a strategic missile defense system in Eastern Europe, the “hectic, unjustified” NATO expansion and “attempts to punish Russia” after its brief war with Georgia in August of last year.
If Russia and the United States are serious about “resetting” their relations they have to “get rid of the toxic assets, he says.
The previous U.S. administration (he doesn’t refer to president George W. Bush by name) had a “one-sided ambition toward absolute security,” but the Obama administration, Lavrov says, thinks that is dangerous. As a result, relations between Moscow and Washington have become “more pragmatic and contain less illusions.”
That opens possibilities for working together in a number of areas: Top of the list, Lavrov says, is arms control. The START I treaty expires at the end of this year. “START I is no longer an effective instrument of control,” Lavrov says. “Therefore we see no point in extending it.” Russia wants a new document. The Obama administration wants a new agreement too and both sides are working intensively on ironing out details.
Russia and the U.S. can work together on Afghanistan, Lavrov says, and he holds out the possibility that Moscow might expand possibilities for the U.S. to move military supplies through Russia to Afghanistan.
But Lavrov still finds plenty to criticize in U.S. foreign policy. On the missile defense plan he brushes off U.S. assertions that it is meant to protect against missiles strikes from Iran. “We know that these missile defense bases are directly related to Russian security,” he says.
Does he agree with the U.S. that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons? “We don’t have any confirmation of the Iranian nuclear program having military dimension.” Yet the Foreign Minister says Russia supports IAEA inspection and “strongly urges” Iran to cooperate fully.
Does Russia think it should have a “sphere of influence” in former Soviet republics which are now independent countries? No, he says, “So many countries, including Europe, the United States, China, others have the interest in this region.”
But that competition, he says, should be “fair.”
“Let’s not have some covert contact telling these countries, you must decide either you are still a colony of Moscow or you want to be with the free world.”
But with Lavrov, a subtle and sophisticated diplomat, you can almost see the fine print: “As far as Russian doctrine is considered, yes, we clearly state that CIS countries are our privileged partners, but the fact of the matter is that Russia for them is also a privileged partner.”
Toward the end of the speech, a questioner asks the Foreign Minister what lessons might be learned from Russia’s painful nine-year war in Afghanistan which ended in blistering defeat.
Minister Lavrov cuts him off with a smile: “No, I don’t want to.” The audience, many of them experts on Russia, laughs ruefully.
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