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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rice Says Russia Uses Energy as a Weapon

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice criticized Moscow on Monday for using its oil and gas wealth as a "political weapon" and said democratic reforms would strengthen its ties with Washington.

In a speech on the state of U.S.-Russian relations, Rice conceded that there was a "certain distance" between Washington and Moscow, but she rejected suggestions that there had been a return to the frosty ties of an earlier era.

Russia is a key energy supplier to Europe, but it has reduced and even cut supplies over a number of disputes with neighboring countries. Earlier this month, Gazprom threatened to reduce supplies to Kiev in a dispute over payments.

"We respect Russia's interests, but no interest is served if Russia uses its great wealth, its oil and gas wealth, as a political weapon or treats its independent neighbors as part of some old sphere of influence," Rice said.

She also said Russia should not view the Soviet breakup as a threat to its own stability. "Nor do we believe that Europe's unity and liberty since 1991 is unjust. The freedom of people to choose their own governments and the freedom of governments to make their own way is a source of security and not a threat to it," said Rice, who was in Moscow little over a week ago.

"Russia has regained some of its strength and its cohesion. But at times, perhaps reflecting the views of the 1990s, we fear that this is sometimes seen in zero-sum terms of another era," she added.

Rice urged the country to strengthen the independence of its institutions, such as the judiciary and the media, saying such a move would improve relations.

"We want Russia to be strong, strong in 21st-century terms, not just with a strong center but with strong, independent institutions, an independent judiciary and legislature, and an independent civil society and media and vibrant nongovernmental sector," she said.

The United States and other Western governments have frequently expressed concern about democracy and human rights under President Vladimir Putin, who has consolidated the Kremlin's power. Rice, who visited Moscow along with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, said she hoped Moscow could work more cooperatively on trying to resolve the Kosovo problem.

"We hope that Russia will also realize that we can work together for a Kosovo solution that contributes to peace in Europe," she added.

Despite the laundry list of complaints and recommendations, Rice called for greater mutual understanding and sought to play down talks of a new Cold War. "It's not to say that we don't have differences, we do. Yet Russia is not the Soviet Union," she said.

Bilateral relations have been strained in recent months, particularly over Washington's plans to build a missile defense system in Eastern Europe.

But Rice pointed to closer cooperation on tackling North Korea's nuclear program and on the Middle East.

While there were differences on how to get Tehran to give up its nuclear program, she said Moscow and Washington shared the common goal of preventing Iran from getting an atomic bomb.