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Rice Takes Aim At Russia Before Lavrov Talks

Rice and Lavrov in happier times earlier this year
NEW YORK (Reuters) -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice piled new criticism on Russia ahead of tough talks with its foreign minister, their first meeting since Moscow's incursion into Georgia last month.

The top U.S. diplomat said Russia had achieved none of its strategic objectives by invading Georgia last month except to harm its reputation.

"All that they've done is to call into question their suitability for the diplomatic, economic, and security institutions of an integrated international community," Rice said in an interview broadcast by the CNBC network.

The top U.S. diplomat, an expert on the former Soviet Union, repeated the U.S. view that Russia's membership of key organizations like the World Trade Organization were "going nowhere" because of its actions in Georgia.

"Russia has one foot in the international system, the integration, and one foot out. That's actually not a very comfortable place to be," she said.

Later on September 24, Rice was set to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at her New York hotel on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

It is their first one-on-one meeting since the Georgia invasion last month and U.S. officials anticipated it would be difficult one.

'Rocky Period'

"We are obviously in a rocky period in our relations with Russia," a senior U.S. official said before the meeting.

Rice's spokesman said the late-afternoon talks would focus on Iran and North Korea's nuclear programs, but she would also raise Russia's military actions in Georgia, the key factor that has sunk relations to post-Cold War lows.

"We have a number of mutual interests here," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

Rice's uneasy relationship with Lavrov has been laid bare in the past at other international meetings, where the two have clashed over Iran and other issues. Russia has consistently opposed stronger punitive measures against Tehran.

Setting the tone for the New York meeting, Russia boycotted talks by major powers planned for September 25 at which a fourth round of sanctions was set to be discussed against Iran in a bid to get Tehran to give up its sensitive nuclear work.

Rice sought to play down the significance of Russia pulling out of the meeting, telling CNBC she agreed the timing was not right and more work needed to be done before ministers met.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said he was told major powers would meet in November to discuss further sanctions against Iran and he said it was important that Russia not be isolated so that it could cooperate on this issue.

"It's the reason why we must not isolate Russia, because then Moscow decides not to collaborate like before on the Iran dossier and for us that is a problem," he told reporters traveling with him in New York.

Rice has presided over a steady deterioration of U.S. ties with Moscow and led international condemnation of Russia's decision to send troops to Georgia to stop Tbilisi's attempt to retake the pro-Russian, separatist region of South Ossetia.

She antagonized Russia last week with a tough speech, telling the West to resist Russian "bullying," and accusing Moscow of becoming increasingly authoritative and aggressive.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko was caustic on September 23 of the U.S. approach of punishing Russia while at the same time seeking cooperation in key bilateral issues.

"If they want to punish Russia, that is one thing. If they agree that we have common interests which need to be jointly promoted, then it's a different story. Using Condoleezza Rice's words, 'you can't have both,'" he said.