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Kerry, Hagel Make Effort to Mend Relations With Russia

August 9, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: Despite heightened tensions between the U.S. and Russia recently, high-level talks in Washington today tried to find some common ground.

Margaret Warner has the story.

One of the first questions in today’s news conference was about the rocky U.S.-Russia relationship, made even rockier this week after President Obama canceled a summit with his counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When President Putin came back into power, I think we saw more rhetoric on the Russian side that was anti-American, that played into some of the old stereotypes about the Cold War contest between the United States and Russia.

I don’t have a bad personal relationship with Putin. I know the press likes to focus on body language, and he’s got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom. But the truth is, is that when we’re in conversations together, oftentimes, it’s very productive.

MARGARET WARNER: Even before the president spoke, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel began talks with their Russian counterparts.

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U.S.-Russia relations had grown frosty even before Putin granted asylum to Snowden, as was evident when the two presidents met in Scotland in June. But opening today’s session, Secretary Kerry said he hoped the two sides could still engage on a wide range of issues.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: It’s no secret that we have experienced some challenging moments and obviously not — not just over the Snowden case. We will discuss these differences today, for certain. But this meeting remains important above and beyond the collisions and the moments of disagreement.

MARGARET WARNER: Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he too hoped for progress in the day’s talks.

FOREIGN MINISTER SERGEI LAVROV, Russia (through interpreter): I remember that when I first met John in his current role, he said that our countries have a special responsibility and there is much that depends on us so we need to work together as grownups. We will try to do this and count on a similar attitude in return.

MARGARET WARNER: And after the meetings, speaking to reporters at the Russian Embassy, Lavrov insisted progress had been made.

SERGEI LAVROV (through interpreter): The overall mood is very positive, which inspires optimism, and I hope the consultations help bring our approaches closer and respect to strategic stability, and I’m sure they will continue and be instrumental in strengthening security and stability globally.

MARGARET WARNER: But he took issue with President Obama’s comments about Russia’s inclination to slip into a Cold War mentality.

SERGEI LAVROV (through interpreter): Through our work with our counterparts, it is clear there is no cold war that we should expect. The relationship is quite normal and we shouldn’t expect any aggravation.

Thank you very much.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet, on a couple of contentious issues, like Syria and missile defense, Lavrov offered no concrete evidence of progress made today. 

JEFFREY BROWN: Margaret was at the Russian Embassy today and joins me now.

And, Margaret, so tell us a little bit more about this meeting. What is your sense of what came out of it?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, going, in of course, the big question was how would the Russians arrive? What would be their attitude about the cancellation of the summit? Would they be infuriated or actually ready to do business? 

From what we’re told we both sides, the Snowden affair was dealt with at the top. They repeated their positions, and in fact there was a more — quote — “pragmatic tone” dealing with all these specific issues.

You could, however, see that, from what President Obama said — and his news conference was scheduled after the meetings — that as far as he was concerned, certainly, there is no breakthrough.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have been talking to U.S. officials, I know, all day. Can you sum up the problem from their perspective?

MARGARET WARNER: The problem from their perspective is, of course, you have these intractable issues that the U.S. and Russia are trying to cooperate on, like Syria. How do you bring a political solution to that? 

But Kerry and Lavrov were at least talking on that all the time. The thing that really stuck in the White House’s craw, the administration’s craw, was that President Obama wrote a very careful and extensive letter in April laying out what he thought they really should accomplish before this summit, and in particular, offering — suggesting further arms reductions, but offering what — at least the U.S. side — was a kind of creative way of dealing with President Putin’s concerns about missile defense.

And surprisingly to the United States, they didn’t even get the — it was an insult that there was no real reply. There was no real counterproposal. It was a lot of talking, talking in circles. And so that to them was evidence that Putin just is not serious really about engaging with the United States right now.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how much of it — this personal Obama-Putin relationship is playing in? I mean, we heard the president talk a little bit about it.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes. 

JEFFREY BROWN: He also pointedly referred to his progress with then-President Medvedev, right, as opposed to President Putin.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, absolutely.

And that was a calculated move on the president’s part during those two years that — three years that Medvedev was president. They did make progress. It is rooted in their different personalities. I mean, the two men are oil and water, but I think it’s also rooted in President Obama’s temperament. That is, he is not seeking a chummy relationship for its own say, as it’s been described me.

This isn’t Bill Clinton wanting to embrace Boris Yeltsin in a bear hug. This is a transactional guy. He wants to have deliverables, and if he thinks that Putin isn’t interested in that — and the White House theory, or the administration theory is that’s because of Putin’s own domestic political problems — then he’s not interested.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how much — from the Russian side, how much were you able to gauge the lingering effects of the president’s decision this week not to go to the summit, for example?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, there are two strains.

In the Russian media, it’s being portrayed as Obama being the one weak politically at home. He couldn’t withstand the pressure over the Snowden matter. He was responding childishly. So, the state-influenced media is playing it that way.

The officials who came here actually at least gave in body language and in tone that they really do want to do business. And, in fact, the defense minister made a curious statement when he was asked about this. He said, oh, far from lowering the temperature on our relationship, it’s actually heated it up, something about — he didn’t mean hotter as in more contentious.

The question is really, though, will there be meat on the bones? And on that question, the U.S. administration felt, OK, they seem to be taking the missile defense proposals more seriously. I won’t get into the details of those, but they still weren’t prepared to come forward with the kind of proposal that then you could start having real negotiations and something for the two presidents to sign or agree on.

JEFFREY BROWN: So when we hear the president talk about assessing the relationship, the overall relationship — and, remember, of course, he came in saying he wanted to reset the relationship four-plus years ago now. What does that mean at this point?

MARGARET WARNER: It means that the proof is in the pudding, that I’m — again, I’m not interested in just a relationship for its own sake, whereas he lavished a lot of attention on Medvedev, but that’s because they thought there was a prospect of getting real deals, which there were.

I think at this point it’s clear that President Obama has concluded, you know, show me the money. Show me your interest. And at the very end, he has a background briefing, State Department officials today, and one of them said, there will be another summit if and only when, or words to that effect. It’s the kind of summit that demonstrates that the U.S.-Russia relationship matters.

It’s kind of one of those “ouch” comments.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK.

Margaret Warner, thanks so much.

MARGARET WARNER: My pleasure.