By Timothy Heritage
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia held out an olive branch to the United States on Wednesday by calling for an improvement in ties, but chided Washington over "odious" human rights legislation and denounced Western policy on Syria.
Setting out Russia's policy agenda for 2013 at an annual news conference, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made clear that improving relations with Washington was part of Moscow's vision for strengthening its influence on the world stage.
"On issues where we have disagreements, we can look for ways to prevent these problems making the whole atmosphere worse and stopping us cooperating," he said, reiterating a hope that U.S. President Barack Obama would accept an invitation for a summit with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow this year.
However, he signaled no change in Russia's stance on Syria, where Moscow is President Bashar al-Assad's main protector.
Criticizing the West on several fronts, he made clear Russia would be resolute in its defense of national interests.
"Russian-U.S. relations are going through far from the best of times," said Lavrov, a 62-year-old veteran diplomat who has won a reputation as a tough negotiator since becoming foreign minister in 2004.
He described U.S. legislation enacted last month to punish Russians suspected of human rights abuses as odious, and criticized a U.S. judge's recent ruling in a dispute over a collection of Jewish writings held in Russia.
But he made clear he wanted to draw a line under the dispute over the Magnitsky Act, to which Russia responded by approving similar legislation against U.S. citizens and banning Americans from adopting Russian orphans.
He underlined the need for "stable, mutually beneficial cooperation", particularly in investment and trade.
Obama has not responded to Russia's invitation to meet Putin in Moscow and diplomats say he is likely to agree to hold a full summit only if he thinks progress can be made there.
Ties between the two former Cold war enemies improved after Obama sought a "reset" in relations four years ago but have worsened again since then, particularly as Putin implemented what the United States saw as a crackdown on opponents.
STANDING FIRM ON SYRIA
Washington and Moscow, which are both nuclear powers, also differ over the development of a missile defense system on Russia's doorstep in eastern Europe and over the conflict in Syria.
Moscow has blocked three U.N. Security Council resolutions intended to force Assad out of power or press him to end the bloodshed, and shows no sign of changing its position.
Lavrov said Moscow was talking to all sides in the conflict and making a genuine effort to end it, but implied its Western partners were less committed to finding a solution.
"We often talk to them about that. They seem to understand it all, and the threat accompanying the prospect of the break-up of the Syrian state," he said. "But when they speak in public they say somewhat different things, differing from what they are telling us privately.
This criticism was one of several barbs directed at the West which underlined Lavrov's reputation as a man who does not mince his words. Like Putin, who began a new six-year term as president last May and is often harsh in his criticism of the West, he mixed promises of cooperation with tough rhetoric.
Lavrov warned Israel and its Western allies, who are led by the United States, against any military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities to prevent Tehran developing nuclear arms. This, he said, was a "very, very dangerous idea".
He was in line with other world powers, however, when asked about North Korea's nuclear and missile programs, urging Pyongyang to adhere to international restrictions on its work.
His remarks increased pressure on North Korea to abide by U.N. Security Council resolutions banning it from conducting further ballistic missile and nuclear tests.
Summing up Moscow's aims in 2013, Lavrov said the world was going through a transitional period towards a new balance of power and Russia's main goal was to ensure policies that underline collective action and reasonable compromise rather than the use of force to end conflicts.
(Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Douglas Busvine and Tom Pfeiffer)
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