Rice takes aim at Russia as she meets Lavrov

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice piled new criticism on Russia as she met with its foreign minister on Wednesday in their first encounter since Moscow’s incursion into Georgia last month.

Rice shook hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as they met at her hotel. Both ministers smiled awkwardly but declined to answer reporters’ questions.

“Let’s shake hands and maybe they will go away,” Rice told Lavrov, as reporters shouted questions. Lavrov replied, “Do you think this would satisfy them.”

Earlier, Rice said Russia had harmed its reputation without achieving any strategic goals by invading Georgia.

Rice, an expert on the former Soviet Union, repeated the U.S. view that Russia’s membership in groups 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,” said Rice in an interview with CNBC.

U.S. officials anticipated a difficult meeting. Rice and Lavrov had only spoken three times since the Georgia crisis and their relations have been testy in the past.

Rice’s spokesman said the 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.


Russia boycotted talks by major powers planned for Thursday at which a fourth round of sanctions against Iran was to be discussed to get Tehran to give up its nuclear work. Russia opposes more sanctions.

Rice played down the significance of the Russian decision, saying she agreed the timing was not right and more work was needed before ministers met.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said political directors from the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany would meet in the next few days to discuss Iran and the ministers were prepared to meet later.

“We are ready, all of us, to travel around the world, to meet together in some place,” he said.

Rice has presided over a steady deterioration of U.S. ties with Moscow. She 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 speech, telling the West to resist Russian “bullying,” and accusing Moscow of becoming increasingly authoritarian and aggressive.

On Tuesday Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko was caustic of the U.S. strategy of punishing Russia while at the same time seeking cooperation in key 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 in a statement on the foreign ministry web site.

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