Since the end of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian officials often have complained that the United States tends to treat their country with less respect and deference than a great power deserves.
But that was the hardly the case at a morning session Tuesday as nearly 100 U.S. government officials, European diplomats, think tankers and journalists filled an auditorium at the Russian Embassy in Washington to hear from Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The minister has a reputation for being blunt and sometimes tough, but in an hour-long talk and question-and-answer session in flawless and barely accented English, his words and demeanor reflected what he called the current “upstage” in U.S.-Russian relations. He once quoted Abraham Lincoln to make a point, and the session began with the American moderator requesting a moment of silence for the victims of this weekend’s boat sinking in Russia.
For journalists looking for hard news, there were few headlines. Lavrov said the meeting that brought him to Washington — the Mideast Quartet — never was intended to come up with a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that would possibly head off a U.N. resolution in September recognizing a Palestinian state. A State Department dinner Monday night among the Quartet foreign ministers produced no statement, but as Lavrov said, “the wine was good.” They will next meet on the eve of the U.N. General Assembly.
As Lavrov acknowledged, even in times of smooth relations between the old Cold War antagonists, there are “bumps in the road,” the biggest now being NATO plans for a missile defense system with installations in Poland and the Czech Republic to protect Europe from attacks from Iran or elsewhere in the Middle East. The two countries have been trying to work out a missile defense pact since President Obama’s trip to Moscow two years ago but with little to show for their efforts.
“Missile defense cannot be to the detriment of Russian security,” the minister said. That basically means assuring the military, which so far U.S. negotiators have failed to accomplish. He said the United States needs to draw Russia into talks that would develop a common analysis of the threat and the design of such a missile shield.
U.S. negotiators, Lavrov said, “are not giving us the benefit of the doubt on our intellectual capability. They are telling us to calm down and accept (the proposed system).”
On issues from Libya, to Syria to Iran, Lavrov gave a veiled critique, without mentioning specific countries, of an approach to diplomatic problems that emphasizes isolation and sanctions rather than engagement and seeking creative solutions.
The minister described what he called “a turning point in history” as more nations gain economic and political clout, creating what he said is “the objective trend of a polycentric world.” In non-diplomatic language, that means a world in which the United States is not as dominant a superpower as it has been since the collapse of the Soviet Union and there is more room for Russia to assert its influence.
Photo of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov by Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs via Flickr Creative Commons.
The event was co-hosted by the Russian Embassy, Center for Strategic and International Studies and the European Institute. Follow Michael Mosettig on Twitter.