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US-Russia Seek A Fresh Start 

Anna Zalewski

The administration of President Barack Obama is vigorously reaching out to the world, offering initiatives in keeping with its new diplomatic approach. Last week, Secretary Clinton had dinner in Geneva with her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. She presented Lavrov with an over-sized "Reset" button. The symbolism was meant to say Washington felt It was time to explore a fresh start, in U.S./Russian relations. 

According to Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center, Russian media were ecstatic over the development. “The meeting of the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and State Secretary Clinton looked really amazing. And even the tone of the Russian national TV channels which usually project a very negative image of the United States, and I think promote the negative relations between United States and Russia - even those channels actually covered the meeting in a fairly benevolent manner.”

But Matthias Rueb, the Washington Bureau Chief of the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, is more cautious. “Actually not everybody in Brussels in NATO headquarters is happy about this new charm offensive," says Mr. Rueb. "And some nations have also criticized that NATO is reviving talks with Russia even though the situation on the ground in Georgia for instance has not changed. 

The behavior towards Ukraine threatening to cut out natural gas supplies has not changed… So overall you may say they are overstretching the symbolism of pushing the reset button towards Russia without really changing something in substance.”

Still, the meeting between Secretary Clinton and Foreign Minister Lavrov had many in Europe breathing easier. But not everyone. While France and Germany, for example, have long been pressing for a resumption of ties with Russia, Matthias Reub explains others were not so anxious to forgive and forget. “That's exactly true and that's why the smaller countries like the Baltic countries and also countries like Hungary and the Czech Republic in Eastern and Central Europe are not that happy about that rapprochement, well you can even say between the Old Europe and Russia, and also U.S. and Russia," he said. "So even though everybody like lately Gordon Brown is trying to convince there is no such thing as a split within Europe between Old Europe and New Europe - there're clearly different strategic interests in Europe.”

But the United States, under Barack Obama, is beginning to show how it differs from the previous administration in approaching U.S. strategic interests. Towards Russia, the first sign came in a letter from President Obama to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, reportedly offering to back away from a Bush administration plan to counter potential future threats from Iran by deploying a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe. Moscow vigorously opposed the idea, calling it a new threat to its own security. But whether the new Obama offer came with an understanding that Moscow would do what it could to curtail Iran's development of long-range weapons is debatable. Matthias Reub of the Franfurter Allgemein Zeitung also says it's unclear how much influence Russia has with Iran.

“This actually remains to be seen," he said. "The Russians are still supplying the Iranians with weapons that might be considered threatening by the U.S. and also by Israel. The Americans are hoping that the Russians will help the Iranians to comply with what UN Security Council is asking for months now that they stop their enrichment program which Teheran has not done yet.”

Iran, for its part has appeared to welcome President Obama's proposal, although it has not offered any official reaction. Political analyst Richard Wolffe with NBC television' cable outlet MSNBC points out, Iran's complex leadership structure brings together clerics and political leaders with views that sometimes differ sharply. “President Obama and his new administration has thrown the Iranian regime off balance. They don't really know how to calibrate their response. It was much simpler world when they could just reflexively be anti- Bush and anti-America," he said.

When Barack Obama became president, he promised a new kind of foreign policy, one in which the United States would engage in active diplomacy - even with countries considered opponents. MSNBC's Richard Wolffe calls it Mr. Obama's charm offensive, but one that he says is practical. “In the end what this administration is doing is being more pragmatic and is seeking a more realist foreign policy as opposed to a realistic foreign policy. Now, whether it's more effective or not I guess we're going to find out over time," Wolffe.

Following President Kennedy's credo that the United States must never negotiate out of fear, but also never fear to negotiate, Mr. Obama is acting with a determination to move beyond the diplomatic reset button. What substance it will bring, however, remains to be seen.

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