Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met with their Russian counterparts for talks in Washington on Friday aiming to repair strained relations with Moscow.
President Obama snubbed Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday when he called off plans to go to Moscow next month for a one-on-one summit. He was reacting to Russia’s offer of temporary asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden.
But on Friday, the diplomats seemed eager to show that the dispute is not some new sort of cold war.
Kerry tried to lighten the mood at the State Department meeting with “the two Sergeis,” as calls them.
“Sergei Lavrov and I are old hockey players and we both know that diplomacy, like hockey, can sometimes result in the occasional collision,” Kerry said.
But there was no small talk when Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, and Sergei Shoigu, the defense minister, addressed reporters at the embassy later in the day. There, Lavrov recounted a conversation he had with Kerry earlier this year.
“He said, well, I believe we can make a difference in the Russian-American relations,” Lavrov said. “Let’s act as adults, and that’s what we are trying to do.”
Lavrov says the Snowden case should not disrupt relations. He says Russia was just following its laws when it offered Snowden temporary asylum.
“Edward Snowden did not overshadow our discussions,” Lavrov said. “This was mentioned as a fact which we have on our hands, but the main discussion was about the issues on the agenda, which are of huge interest to the United States, to Russia and the entire world.”
U.S. officials also say the Snowden affair did not color the discussion, which they say was positive and constructive. They say this “two-plus-two” format with the foreign and defense ministers will continue.
At the top level, though, President Obama is making clear that he’s pushing the pause button and reassessing the relationship, which changed when Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin.
“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,” Obama said. “I’ve encouraged Mr. Putin to think forward as opposed to backwards on those issues — with mixed success.”
But he’s playing down suggestions that he and Putin just can’t get along.
“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” Obama said. “But the truth is, is that when we’re in conversations together, oftentimes it’s very productive.”
Not productve enough for a summit in September, though. White House officials say they want more progress on arms reductions and missile defense.
Defense Minister Shoigu came away from his first meeting with Hagel sounding optimistic about those issues. He says he and Hagel will hold regular video conferences and he says he’s invited the United States to join in a friendly military competition — a tank biathalon in Russia.