Obama to host Russian foreign minister Thursday

Barack Obama will host Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Thursday in the Oval Office, as the US president's vow to improve ties with Moscow is tested by events in Georgia.

The White House said Obama would make the unusual move of meeting with Russia's long-time top diplomat, an invitation usually reserved for fellow heads of state and government.

The offer comes as tensions again flair between the two Cold War foes over policies toward regions on Russia's periphery, areas Moscow considers its "near abroad."

The latest flare came this week as Georgia was hit by a military mutiny hours before NATO began a month-long 1,100-troop exercise in the country. The maneuvers are strongly opposed by Moscow.

Tbilisi's pro-Western government has accused Russia of being behind the mutiny and a series of protests to oust Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili.

Relations have further soured after NATO expelled two Brussels-based Russian diplomats, which prompted Lavrov to pull out of talks with the alliance and Russia to expel two Canadian diplomats from NATO's Moscow office.

Since coming to office, Obama has pledged to improve ties with Russia which were strained during the presidency of George W. Bush.

Lavrov's visit to Washington comes two months after he and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly declared they had hit the "reset button" on relations.

But despite an early diplomatic victory in restarting talks to reduce arsenals, old disputes continue to simmer.

On Wednesday, a senior Russian official warned his US counterpart that Georgia is a "destabilizing factor" in the region.

Russia's junior foreign minister, Grigory Karasin, told his State Department equivalent Dan Fried that recent allegations of Russian meddling in Georgia's internal affairs were not welcomed.

Obama will hope his invitation will help smooth relations ahead of his meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in July.

Lavrov is a fixture in Russia's foreign policy establishment. He speaks fluent English and was Russia's ambassador to the United Nations for the decade before he was tapped to become foreign minister by Vladimir Putin in 2004.

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