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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rice Conveys Criticism and Praise

APU.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pointing as she speaks with Ekho Moskvy editor Alexei Venediktov during an interview Wednesday morning.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Wednesday mixed criticism of the Kremlin's record on democracy with praise for Russia's commitment to the war on terrorism and on nuclear nonproliferation on the second day of her visit to Moscow.

Rice started her day by giving interviews to NTV television and Ekho Moskvy radio before meeting with President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin and giving an upbeat assessment of U.S.-Russian cooperation on security and other issues.

"With your direct participation, our relations with the United States have reached the high level they have today," Putin said in cordial remarks to Rice at the start of their Kremlin meeting. "We have strong hopes that the course for developing cooperation would be continued on both sides."

Putin also asked Rice to convey to U.S. President George W. Bush that he would be warmly welcomed at the upcoming May 9 celebrations of the Allied victory in World War II in Moscow.

In response, Rice passed on Bush's "warm regards" and said that he was looking forward to making the trip.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who also attended the Kremlin meeting with Putin, said later that Rice had been briefed on Russia's domestic policy developments. Rice also had lunch with Lavrov at a Foreign Ministry residence after her meeting with Putin. On Tuesday evening, she also had a private dinner with Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov.

Rice and her team arrived in Moscow on Tuesday to discuss what has become the traditional agenda of U.S.-Russian relations -- terrorism, nuclear security, NATO-Russia cooperation, mediation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, U.S. conditions for Russia's access to the World Trade Organization and Russian energy exports and the rule of law.

Despite such a broad agenda, Russian state television gave very brief coverage to Rice's meetings and her visit in general: with the exception of NTV, which was due to air an interview with Rice late Wednesday.

Before speaking to NTV, Rice had a chance to weigh in on almost every topic on the U.S.-Russian agenda in her interview to Ekho Moskvy on Wednesday morning. Rice reiterated White House concerns about the Kremlin's drive to tighten its grip on the country and the lack of independent television channels.

"There should not be so much concentration of power just in the presidency, there needs to be an independent media ... so that the Russian people can debate and decide together the democratic future of Russia," Rice said.

Bush has proclaimed the promotion of democracy worldwide a key priority for his second term. Yet the White House has limited direct criticism of the Kremlin over what it sees as a rollback of democracy, fearing that this could alienate Russia, which remains an important ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism and in promoting nuclear nonproliferation.

In line with this approach, Rice said the United States respected Russia's right to pursue its own path toward democracy but noted that "for the U.S.-Russia relationship to really deepen and for Russia to gain its full potential there needs to be democratic development."

She said that the United States was not playing zero-sum games in the post-Soviet neighborhood, which Russia views as its sphere of influence, in response to a question about the United States' role in the revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP

Putin speaking to Rice during their meeting in the Kremlin on Wednesday.

While concerned about the future of Russia's democracy and defensive about Washington's growing role in the former Soviet Union, Rice was mostly upbeat in her assessment of the Kremlin's foreign policy and U.S.-Russian cooperation in the war on terrorism and on promoting nuclear nonproliferation.

She praised Moscow for convincing Iran to agree that it would return all spent fuel from the Bushehr nuclear power plant, which Russian companies are building, to Russia. Return of the fuel would guarantee that none of it could be used in a possible nuclear weapons program, which Washington suspects Tehran of pursuing.

Rice was also positive about cooperation on boosting security at Russian military and civil nuclear facilities.

She acknowledged the two sides had yet to hammer out some legal issues, such as which country would be liable if damage were caused during the decommissioning of nuclear facilities and the disposal of nuclear materials. The lack of agreement on liability has stalled several important projects, including those that focus on the disposal of weapons-grade plutonium.

In closed-door talks the two sides have also argued about access for both countries' inspectors to each other's nuclear facilities. Russia has stalled the project, citing a lack of reciprocity, but the nonproliferation agreements reached by Bush and Putin at their February summit in Slovakia renewed hopes that inspections would resume.

When asked if Ivanov had agreed to authorize these inspections, Rice said that the Americans had "made improvements" in their access to facilities and expressed hopes that further progress on that issue would be made before the two presidents meet next month.

Ivanov was quick to deny, however, that U.S. inspectors would gain access to Russian sites. "Visits by U.S. inspectors to nuclear installations in Russia are not under consideration; this is not an issue," Ivanov said, Interfax reported.

Lavrov couched his rebuttal to Rice's comments on American concerns about media freedom in Russia in more diplomatic terms, asking Rice to avoid "generalizations" and "cite concrete examples."

Lavrov also expressed a tongue-in-cheek hope that the United States would remain a robust democracy, but fired back more bluntly when Rice brought up another issue of contention for Washington -- the sale of 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles to Venezuela. Lavrov replied that the sale did not run counter to any of Russia's international commitments.