Monday, 22 March 2010

Putin shows steel behind the smiles

Though a meeting with Vladimir Putin was not initially on US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's itinerary, disagreements over Iran's nuclear program apparently helped persuade officials to secure one at the last-minute.

Before meeting privately with Clinton at the Prime Minister's country residence, Putin, all smiles, surprised reporters by rattling off a list of perennial economic woes between the two countries that included declining trade turnover, the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment which restricts trade with countries that limit emigration, and continuous stalling over World Trade Organisation entry for Russia.

If declining trade turnover ($36 billion to $16 billion) isn't bad enough, another "systemic issue" is that Russia has been discussing WTO entry "for 17 years already," said Putin with a note of exasperation. "Only three questions remain. And we keep walking around this triangle. But in reality, they don't pose any serious significance either for the US economy or for our economy."
Putin's spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, told The Moscow News that the three issues referred to in the speech are "difficult, unresolved issues that still remain" in the negotiations.

Clinton, meanwhile, said she was "committed" to Russia joining the WTO and that talks were ongoing to "facilitate" the process.
By way of a warm welcome, Putin praised past cooperation on combating terrorism and regulating conflicts in the Middle East, calling Clinton's talks with President Dmitry Medvedev and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov productive.

Though Lavrov had said earlier that the "reset has indeed become a reality," it appears that it could still be a challenge to keep a slew of unresolved issues from slowing it down.
Clinton's recent Moscow visit, her second since becoming Secretary of State, seemed to bring those issues to the fore. They were particularly distinct against a backdrop of pledges that the new nuclear reduction treaty between the two countries would be signed in April, without a date actually being set.

Missile defense linkage and verification procedures were two of the sticking points in the START Treaty negotiations, but any number of potential bargaining points appeared to be complicating the process.

For instance, during the Clinton-Lavrov meeting on Thursday, Putin, chairing an unrelated nuclear energy meeting in Volgodonsk, announced that Russia would soon start up its nuclear reactor in the Bushehr plant in Iran.

Although the start-up has already been delayed several times, the remark seemed to catch Clinton off-guard. "We think it would be premature to go forward with any project at this time because we want to send an unequivocal message to the Iranians," she told journalists.

Lavrov, however, insisted that Moscow would go through with starting up the reactor.
This, together with Putin's tirade of trade complaints on Friday, appeared to add additional pressure to ongoing talks between the United States and Russia.

Still, Putin, who had previously stood firm on not conceding to new sanctions against Iran, admitted Friday that this could be a possibility, deputy chief of staff for foreign affairs, Yuri Ushakov, told journalists.

While both President Dimitri Medvedev and Lavrov had suggested that new sanctions might be enacted by Russia, it was the first time Putin had done so.

However, sanctions "do not always resolve the issue, and in some cases could be counterproductive," Ushakov said, relaying Putin's statement to Clinton.

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