Rice set for rocky encounter with Russia’s Lavrov

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is set to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday in what is expected to be a tense encounter following Moscow’s incursion into Georgia last month.

“We are obviously in a rocky period in our relations with Russia,” said a senior U.S. official on the eve of the meeting at Rice’s hotel on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.

Rice’s spokesman said the afternoon talks would focus on Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programs, but that 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,” said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, who sought to play down the tensions.

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 pulled out of talks by major powers planned for Thursday 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 has presided over a steady deterioration of U.S. ties with Russia 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.

An expert on the former Soviet Union, Rice gave a tough speech last week in which she said the West must resist Russian “bullying,” accusing Moscow of becoming increasingly authoritative and aggressive by its actions, particularly in Georgia, whose president she met on Tuesday.

While criticizing Russian actions, senior U.S. officials say Washington realizes it needs to work closely with Russia on a host of global issues led by Iran and North Korea.

But the officials admit tensions over Georgia are spilling over into other areas, making cooperation more and more difficult.

“It is certainly affecting the tone of how we interact in other areas,” said a senior U.S. diplomat, who spoke on condition he not be named.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko reiterated Russia’s criticism of U.S. attempts to combine harsh criticism of Moscow and calls to punish it over Georgia with requests for cooperation in other areas.

“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.

U.S. officials said Rice planned to both appeal to Lavrov over what she saw as Russia’s international obligations on Iran and push him hard to meet commitments made in a French-brokered deal over Georgia.

Under that deal, Russian forces must withdraw from “security zones” adjacent to South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia, by October 10.

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