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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia's U.S. Hand Goes to Canada

High-stakes international diplomacy doesn't always take place in gilded halls or backrooms. As practiced by Georgy Mamedov, at least, it sometimes can happen in places as unlikely as Washington's Uptown Theater.

It was a few years back, during one of those periodic moments of tension in the post-Cold War era as Russia and the United States tried to figure out how to be, if not friends, at least not enemies. The relationship was threatened by U.S. plans to expand NATO into former Soviet satellite territory.

One night as Mamedov, the deputy foreign minister, haggled over the issue with Strobe Talbott, then the deputy U.S. secretary of state, the two decided to take a break by going to see the science-fiction movie "Independence Day." Afterward, as Talbott recalled in his memoir "The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy," they retired to a restaurant and debated over pasta whether the aliens who vaporized the White House should be eligible for membership in the NATO alliance.

For some 33 years, Mamedov has served Moscow as an expert in all things American, right down to his love of Hollywood movies. For the past dozen years, he has been Russia's chief interlocutor with the United States, handling such subjects as NATO, arms control and Kosovo. But last week he packed up his office and moved on to a new post as ambassador to Canada, expressing satisfaction that his work with the United States was done.

"I feel optimistic," he said over coffee in a sitting room at the Foreign Ministry headquarters, in the Stalin-era skyscraper on Smolenskaya Ploshchad. "It doesn't mean that all our positions coincide. It doesn't mean that we don't blame each other for certain matters. But the general trends are good."

That Mamedov could still say that after the rupture over President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq testifies to the depth of change in the relationship that he and his U.S. counterparts in the last three administrations nurtured through often painful moments.

It often fell to Mamedov, with his knowledge of colloquial English and affinity for American culture, to smooth over the thorniest disputes. He helped persuade Washington to proceed with NATO expansion slowly and reassured the Americans when then-President Boris Yeltsin sent tanks to besiege the Russian parliament. Along with Talbott, he brokered a deal under which Ukraine gave up the nuclear arms it inherited after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

"He's been certainly involved in the transformation of the relationship going back to the [Mikhail] Gorbachev era and even earlier," said Alexander Vershbow, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow who first met Mamedov in the 1980s. "He's been a real problem solver, somebody who's always defended their interests quite aggressively -- and volubly -- but has been a good partner. Every U.S. ambassador who's dealt with him has found him to be a guy who could get things done."

Indeed, each U.S. administration for 12 years has passed him to the next with an endorsement. "He's in the solution business," Talbott remembered diplomat Dennis Ross telling him as the George H. W. Bush administration ended. After Talbott left, Undersecretary of State John Bolton became Mamedov's counterpart in the current Bush administration.

Just last month, Mamedov said, he, Bolton and a French diplomat negotiated a joint declaration for the Group of Eight nations expressing concern about Iran's possible development of nuclear weapons. The declaration eased longstanding friction with Washington, which has pressed Russia to end its construction of a nuclear reactor in Iran.

At 55, with thick glasses and gray suits, Mamedov still looks a little like the Soviet diplomat he once was, but he transcended his roots long ago.

His father, Enver Mamedov, was a senior propagandist for the Communist Party under Leonid Brezhnev. After graduating from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, Yury, as he is known, joined the Institute for U.S.A. and Canada Studies in 1970 and became a protege of Georgy Arbatov, the leading Soviet specialist on America of the time.

Mamedov was posted to the Soviet Embassy in Washington for four years, impressing Americans who called him "George" but also suspected him of working with the KGB. His career nearly ended in 1981 after an embarrassing incident in which his then-wife defected for 12 days, complaining about how he treated her, before changing her mind. Though he was recalled to Moscow, Mamedov survived politically and went on to head the U.S. desk at the Foreign Ministry until 1991, when he became deputy minister.

Mamedov has stood out in other ways. He loves the "Godfather" movies and can quote them at length. He devours John le Carre novels. In interviews, he has made reference to films like "The Silence of the Lambs" as metaphors for diplomacy. He follows U.S. domestic politics closely enough that he joked about the Enron and WorldCom scandals as they were breaking. That sometimes lead to malapropisms Talbott called "Mamedovisms." When he wanted to refer to delaying a difficult issue, or "kicking the can," Mamedov might say "kicking the bucket" instead. When he talked about flattering people he might say he was "buttering them," inadvertently leaving out the "up."

"Yury had a gift for gab and a razzle-dazzle style that he could turn to any purpose -- old-fashioned polemics, head-butting negotiation, insight into the roughhouse politics of his country or, for that matter, mine," Talbott wrote in his memoir. But, he added, "One thing that kept me going through serial crises and setbacks was Yury Mamedov's willingness and ability to work even the toughest problem through to a solution."

For nearly a decade, Mamedov has been in line to become ambassador to Canada, but crises would always arise to forestall him. Now, finally, he heads to Ottawa, declaring that the U.S.-Russian relationship will survive without him.

"It's irreversible," he said. "For the first time, not because of chemistry, not because of the threat of nuclear destruction, but for pragmatic reasons, we find ourselves more often in cooperation rather than in competition."