Lavrov suggests a 'reset' with West. Does Russia mean it this time?

The Russian foreign minister's comment comes on the eve of a European Union meeting to review sanctions on Russia. Improving ties with the US may offer a way forward for Russia.

Richard Drew/AP
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov delivers his address the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly, at UN headquarters on Saturday.

The last time a thaw in US-Russia relations was in the air, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, with a stylized red button marked in big black cyrillic letters. Unfortunately, instead of saying "reset" as intended, the Russian word actually meant "overload."

Perhaps that's what Mr. Lavrov was thinking about when he told an interviewer over the weekend that the dramatic unravelling of the relationship stems from a lack of qualified Russia experts in the West.

Nevertheless, in several lengthy interviews Lavrov sent out what experts say is a clear signal that Moscow is alarmed by the drift of relations into cold war territory and by Russia's growing isolation amid Western sanctions on its economy

"The main problem is that we are very much interested in normalizing [our] relations, but it is not us who has destroyed them. And now we need what the Americans might call ‘a reset’," Lavrov said Sunday.  "I suppose, they will come up with something else: ‘reset #2’ or ‘reset 2.0.'"

It's probably not a coincidence that ambassadors from 28 European Union countries are set to meet in Brussels Tuesday to consider relieving the sanctions that have been imposed on Russia by the group over recent months over its policies in Ukraine. It would take a unanimous vote by all 28 to end the embargo, but Russia may be hoping at least to deepen the existing divisions between EU countries.

But more fundamentally, analysts say, Lavrov understands that fixing relations with the US are key to normalizing ties with Europe.

"The doors are still open. If the Americans are ready, we can resume a sensible dialogue," says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the international affairs committee of the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament. "Lavrov wanted to make the point that Russia was not the initiator of the worsening of relations. We never tried to stir up trouble in their neighborhood, or interfere with their vital interests."

Moscow has blown hot and cold over the past several months, making several apparent overtures to the West that were followed by action-souring relations instead – including allegedly sending Russian troops to bolster rebel forces in Ukraine. Lavrov's comments could be a similar ploy.

But the situation seems different now, particularly in Ukraine. In recent weeks Moscow has sponsored a ceasefire that brought an uneasy peace to eastern Ukraine. It's also embraced a tentative accord, mediated by the EU, that would at least temporarily suspend a 4-month-old gas war with Ukraine, and allow supplies of Russian gas to flow freely to Europe through Ukrainian pipelines this winter.

Lavrov also sounded conciliatory when he suggested that Russia might not strike back with countermeasures, as it did before to the latest round of sanctions imposed by the US and the EU earlier this month.

"We’re not interested in the current period to stay on indefinitely," he told Russia's Channel 5 on Sunday.  "We have no desire to continue a war of sanctions and an exchange of blows. We’ll not do this just for the sake of doing harm to someone as is the case with our partners when they take coercive measures against us."

It may not be an offer to surrender, but it's clearly an olive branch being waved at the West, say analysts.

"Lavrov is wise enough to perceive that Russian policies have cost it dearly in terms of reputation, foreign relationships and economic interests," says Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute of Strategic Assessments in Moscow.

"He has surely consulted with his boss about this, and the agreed message is that Moscow hopes the situation can be normalized somehow. It may not be the best moment, but the longer we postpone compromise and reconciliation with the West, the worse things will become."

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