After talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has hailed a "fresh start" in relations between Moscow and Washington and predicted that the two sides would complete a new strategic arms agreement by the end of the year.
The much-anticipated March 6 meeting in Geneva, part of Clinton's whirlwind tour of the Middle East and Europe, is widely seen as the first step in a "reset" in U.S.-Russian relations that Vice President Joseph Biden called for in a speech in Munich in February.
"We think this is a fresh start not only to improve our bilateral relationship but to lead the world in important areas, particularly with respect to nuclear weapons and nuclear security," Clinton told a joint press conference with Lavrov after the two met at a luxury hotel in Geneva.
Lavrov also expressed confidence that the two sides would make progress on arms control and on controversial U.S. plans to deploy a missile defense system in Europe, one of the key flash points as relations deteriorated under former U.S. President George W. Bush.
"I'm sure we can find common ground, which could even benefit our strategic relations, on the problems both of strategic offensive weapons and missile defense," Lavrov said.
The current Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) expires in December and Russia has long sought a new pact.
Clinton said she expects U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to instruct negotiators in the coming weeks to complete an arms accord to replace the existing START treaty, which went into effect in 1991 and is due to expire on December 31.
"We intend to have an agreement by the end of the year," Clinton said. "This is of the highest priority to our governments. I believe we will be instructed by both of our presidents to make sure we do have an agreement, and we're going to get to work immediately."
Lavrov, who has called the current arms pact "obsolete," also said he expects a deal to be completed by year's end.
In an attempt to break the ice with Lavrov, Clinton handed him a makeshift "reset" button wrapped in a ribbon at the start of their meeting. Laughing, she told the foreign minister that "we want to reset our relationship" and "we will do it together."
Lavrov promised to keep the button on his desk, but pointed out that the Russian word written on it, "peregruzka," meant "overload" -- not "reset."
At the news conference after the talks, Clinton made light of the error, but added that it was nonetheless appropriate.
"We are resetting [our relationship] and, because we are resetting, the minister and I have an overload of work," Clinton said. "This is one of those instances where our commitment to pursue this reset relationship means that we have a very broad agenda."
Relations have deteriorated in recent years due to Moscow's staunch opposition to U.S. support for admitting former Soviet states Georgia and Ukraine into NATO, which Moscow sees as its sphere of influence, and over Washington's plans to place components of a missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland.
Speaking earlier in the day, Clinton said Washington and Moscow "have the opportunity to cooperate on missile defense" including conducting "joint research and joint development and even, eventually, assuming we can reach such an agreement, joint deployment."
A letter Obama sent to Medvedev, which was cited in the media this week, suggested that the U.S. president offered to scrap the missile-defense system if Moscow helped pressure Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions. Both sides, however, deny that any quid pro quo was offered.
Clinton pledged that Moscow and Washington would continue to engage on issues where they disagree.
"Where we have differences, we are keeping those on the list, because we think through closer cooperation and building trust in each other we can even tackle some of those difference," Clinton said.
After her meeting with Lavrov, Clinton continued on to Ankara, where talks with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on March 7 were expected to focus on the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, Turkey's relations with Armenia, Turkish contribution to Afghanistan's security, and Ankara's role as a possible peace broker in the Middle East.
With agency reports