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Taking in the Hillary and Sergey show in Geneva

GENEVA — Despite a camouflaged armored car parked in the rain outside the Intercontinental Hotel, an intense two-hour dinner with Hillary Clinton and Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, seems to have ended on a surprisingly upbeat note, and each calling the other by their first names.

There were one or two glitches. In a hastily rigged photo op, Secretary of State Clinton attempted to present Lavrov with a large red “reset” button wrapped in green paper. The idea was to break the ice by signaling that the Obama administration is ready for fresh start.

“We really worked on the translation. We hope we got it right,” Hillary told Lavrov. Not quite, Lavrov corrected her. Actually the Russian word that Clinton’s aides had come up with means ‘overload.’ Clinton responded that she would never allow that, and then she quipped to reporters here that with the work schedule she and Lavrov have worked out, they are both likely to be overloaded.

Clinton aides emphasized that the Obama administration has three major areas of concern that it wants to get Russian cooperation on: disarmament, Iran and Afghanistan.

The Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty intended to limit the number of nuclear weapons that grew out of the Cold War runs out at the end of the year, and needs to be seriously updated. Lavrov pointed out that as the treaty stands now, the United States would actually need to increase the number of nuclear weapons it had. “That would send a bad signal,” he said. Clinton and Lavrov both said that they are determined to come up with a new document by next December, and they have already started preliminary work on it.

Clinton said that a major discussion during the two-hour dinner in the hotel’s panoramic restaurant had focused on the concern that both the United States and Russia have about keeping nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of an irresponsible power. That is diplomatic code for Iran, and Lavrov seemed to have no problems with the chracterization. “Russia does not sell weapons that destabilize other countries,” he said.

On Afghanistan, Clinton praised Russia for agreeing not to block transport of non-lethal supplies to U.S. forces there. More important, Lavrov confirmed that Russia is ready to take part in a special meeting on Afghanistan at the end of March. The Iranians will also be invited to the meeting, along with a number of other parties involved. The Iranians have an interest in not seeing the fighting in Afghanistan spill over to their own territory, so the meeting could offer a discrete opportunity for opening a dialogue with Iran on issues that both sides can agree on.

As for the Caucuses, Clinton made it clear that the United States will continue to support Georgia and any other European country that wants to join a larger alliance of countries — diplomatic code for NATO. But she added that a NATO-Russia liaison group, which had suspended meetings after the Russians invaded Georgia last August, would now resume. “We want to talk about those things that we have in common,” she said, “but we also want to discuss those areas where we disagree.” Clinton emphasized that every aspect of U.S.-Russian relations would be open for re-examination.

Clinton and Lavrov are both laying the groundwork for the first one-on-one meeting between President Barack Obama and Russia’s president Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev, which is scheduled for the G20 summit in London at the beginning of April. The trick for Clinton during this meeting was to convey the new administration’s openness and readiness to redefine relations, while at the same time leaving no doubt that there are certain areas that the United States will not back down on. It seems to have worked, and Lavrov, at least, seemed on board. “We want to make sure,” he told reporters, “that the button we push isn’t kind that starts a war.” So far, so good.