High level US-Russia talks despite chilly ties

The defense and foreign ministers of Russia and the United States meet in Washington on Friday to brave the chill that has descended on ties between the former Cold War rivals.

Washington and Moscow have never been allies, but in recent weeks relations have sharply deteriorated to a level that some compare to the days of the former Soviet Union.

In the starkest development yet, US President Barack Obama this week canceled plans to meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in the run-up to the St. Petersburg G8 summit.

Already, in an interview on television the night before, Obama had said of the Russians "there have been times where they slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality."

Russia says it is "disappointed" by Obama's decision, but neither side seems to want a breakdown in ties, and Friday's "two-plus-two" meeting was never called into question.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the summit would be postponed because of a "lack of progress" in resolving differences with Moscow over "missile defense and arms control, trade and commercial relations, global security issues and human rights."

The cancellation, a move unseen since the 1960s, appeared to sound the death knell of the so-called "re-set," an attempt to put ties between Moscow and Washington on a stronger footing launched in Obama's first term.

The most immediate reason for Obama's anger is Russia's "disappointing" refusal to hand over Edward Snowden, a former intelligence contractor who fled to Moscow after leaking US intelligence secrets.

But the list of disagreements is long, and many of them will come up on Friday when US Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel meet their Kremlin opposite numbers Sergei Lavrov and Sergei Shoigu.

Russia and the United States are at odds over Syria, where Moscow is standing by strongman Bashar Al-Assad, supplying him with weapons and diplomatic cover at the United Nations.

Obama and Washington's Arab allies are backing the rebellion against Assad's rule, and fear he will cling to power unless his is isolated from outside support.

Nevertheless, Kerry and Lavrov, who reportedly have a cordial personal relationship despite the diplomatic climate, are working towards jointly hosting a Syrian peace summit.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki noted that there were areas of disagreement, but added that there are areas in which Russia and the United States are working in harmony.

She and other officials noted that Russia helps keep the US force in Afghanistan supplied, and had a shared interest in preventing weapons proliferation and dealing with North Korea.

Kerry will also address Russia's human rights record. Many in America, including Obama, have expressed outrage at a recent Russian law outlawing homosexual "propaganda."

Celeste Wallander, a professor at American University and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense, said Friday's meeting could prove useful despite the cancellation of the later summit.

"Instead of doing the groundwork to prep for the summit, presumably what they'll be doing will be to talk about all these issues that still aren't resolved, talking about strategic stability, including missile defense but more broadly: Can there still be an international conference on Syria. What are the next steps on Iran?" she said.

Steven Pifer, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution think tank, agreed.

"When you look at the big issues, in many cases -- on nonproliferation, trying to promote bilateral commercial relations between the two countries -- the interests of the two countries align," he said, on Brookings' website.

"Certainly there are areas of differences. One is Syria," he wrote. "There's differences over human rights issues within Russia, and the political repression. But when you look on big questions -- Iran and North Korea; controlling proliferation -- there are a lot of areas where the United States and Russia should be working together."