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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Diplomacy of Barbs and Jokes

APLavrov speaking with Rice during a G8 meeting in Potsdam this week.
POTSDAM, Germany -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice passed a note to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a news conference, and the two diplomats shared smiles and nods as he read what she had written.

The familiarity -- they offhandedly call each other Condi and Sergei -- is one part of a complex relationship between the senior diplomats for two nations that are increasingly at odds.

Nicknames and jokes could not mask the disagreements between Rice and Lavrov at a pair of international meetings in Germany this week. They traded complaints and veiled warnings in public and had vigorous discussions in private.

"I hope Sergei is right; I hope we have taken care of the North Korean nuclear threat," Rice said with an edge of irritation in her voice during a public exchange over a planned U.S. missile defense shield against threats from North Korea and other nations.

"I think it's a little early to declare victory on that one," Rice said.

Russia does not like the United States arranging missiles and interceptors in Eastern Europe, no matter how many times U.S. officials say the system is not aimed at Russia.

Rice sounded exasperated at the dispute, which has escalated in recent months as Russian-U.S. relations soured on several fronts.

To stress that the system is intended to guard against rogue threats beyond Russia, Rice said Russia itself had claimed that its nuclear missiles could "overwhelm, penetrate, destroy any shield that we might build."

"We quite agree," she said.

Lavrov was not about to let her have the last word. "I hope that nobody has to actually prove that Condi is right about that," he said darkly.

Rice and Lavrov have known each other for years, talk often and usually seem to enjoy their public appearances. Rice has said she admires Lavrov, and compliments his English as better than her Russian. She also lets it be known, however, that she does not back down during their closed-door arguments.

Lavrov can be by turns courtly and condescending. His tone Wednesday was more threatening, as when the two sparred over the future status of Kosovo at the same news conference. Asked whether Russia would consider using its right to veto on the United Nations Security Council, Lavrov replied: "I hope that this won't be necessary and that our partners will understand our arguments."

The direct language was riveting in a setting where bland, prearranged statements are the norm, and Rice apparently wanted to lower the temperature.

Her note asked Lavrov to join her in a joint announcement at the session's end. Although the news was already out, Rice wanted to tell the group that U.S. President George W. Bush would host President Vladimir Putin for an informal visit in July.

The gathering "will give them a chance for a relaxed atmosphere," Rice said through a tight smile.

Then she challenged Lavrov to pronounce correctly the name of the summit site, a Maine town where the Bush family has vacationed for generations. Lavrov nailed "Kennebunkport," and they both laughed.