One year after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Moscow to present the "reset" button to her Russian counterpart Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Under Secretary of State William J. Burns expressed some discomfort with how the publicity stunt has colored U.S.-Russia-relations ever since.
"The concept of ‘reset' carried with it the misleading notion that the slate could be wiped clean with the push of a button, starting anew unburdened by the past. Reality, of course, is a little more complicated," Burns told an audience at the Center for American Progress Wednesday. "But for the first time in a long time, the possibilities before us outnumber the problems."
Burns, who was U.S. ambassador to Moscow from 2005 until 2008, has traveled there several times in his new role, mainly as part of his efforts to broker a fourth U.N. Security Council resolution sanctioning Iran over its nuclear program.
The under secretary's remarks echoed the friendly tone struck by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who told a Brookings Institution crowd Tuesday, "I am glad that in the past year plus we have managed to change the atmosphere of Russian-American relations."
Medvedev also reiterated Russia's position that a new round of U.N. sanctions on Iran may be warranted, but expressed his opposition to "paralyzing, crippling sanctions" that would hurt Iran's people -- a likely reference to broad-based restrictions on Iran's ability to import refined petroleum products, which some on Capitol Hill are pushing.
Listing a number of areas where the United States and Russia have managed to work together over the past year, notably in agreeing to reduce their stockpiles of nuclear weapons, Burns identified economic cooperation as "one of the most underdeveloped areas of our relationship."
Russia's economic ties to the United States remain embryonic, and Moscow has long accused Washington of holding up its bid to join the World Trade Organization over political matters. The United States imported just $18 billion in goods from Russia in 2009 -- about what it imported from Canada each month -- and exported just over $5 billion last year.
"The United States strongly supports Russia's accession to the WTO," Burns said, in an apparent response to Medvedev's complaint that Moscow should be admitted "without humiliation or new demands."
"We should have been in the WTO a long time ago," Medvedev said.
"We ought to be able to build on shared interests while not pulling our punches on differences, and take steps that benefit both of us without grand bargains or tradeoffs that come at the expense of others," Burns said. "That is admittedly easier said than done."