Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reached past Russian officialdom Wednesday to speak directly to the people of Moscow, giving a freewheeling, hourlong interview on radio that included the geopolitical and the personal as she tried to reassure listeners that the United States was not working against their country.
Many listeners e-mailed questions on the live broadcast to the station.
Squeezed into a tiny transmission studio at the independent Echo of Moscow, Rice told listeners that the U.S. was "not against Russia" and had no desire to undercut the nation's influence as Moscow builds new relations with democratic countries, such as Ukraine and Georgia, that were once part of the Soviet empire.
"There's no reason why Russian influence should be less in these countries," she said. "This is not a zero-sum game."
Rice painted a broadly upbeat picture of ties between Washington and Moscow, insisting at one point: "Russia is not a strategic enemy."
Her assessment appeared to strike a chord. During the interview's final minutes, the station asked listeners to decide whether the U.S. was Russia's strategic ally or adversary. In an e-mail vote, 54% considered America an ally.
Rice's radio interview came amid meetings with Russian leaders to help prepare for President Bush's visit next month to Moscow in connection with celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.
She met Tuesday with Defense Minister Sergei B. Ivanov, then Wednesday with President Vladimir V. Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov.
Not wanting to roil relations just a few weeks in advance of the Bush visit, Rice was restrained in her public comments during the two-day visit. She eased back on earlier criticisms about an erosion of democratic freedoms since Putin became president more than five years ago.
The decision to do an interview with Echo of Moscow, however, was a subtle reminder of American concerns about the dearth of a strong independent electronic media in the country.
Echo of Moscow is widely viewed as the most important radio station in Russia that is free from government control. It is favored by educated Muscovites with pro-democracy leanings, or at least with a desire to hear news presenting a range of views. The station, which broadcasts in half a dozen Russian cities, claims a daily audience of 900,000 out of the 25 million people able to receive its signals. It is particularly popular among teachers and professors.
Near the end of the interview, Rice ventured briefly into Russian, but then commented that she was out of practice and switched back to English. A listener said she had misused one verb but described the secretary of State as speaking the language fluently and with a slight, but pleasant, accent.
She also appeared initially to misunderstand a question about whether she planned to run for president in 2008. Answering in Russian: "President? Yes," she then quickly switched to an emphatic, "No, no, no, no, no, no, no!"
Rice later told reporters that she had stressed in her meetings with Lavrov and Putin that the U.S. did not view improved American ties with democracies around Russia's borders as an attempt to challenge Moscow but rather as "the normal development of the United States with fully independent states."
Although Rice said she believed that "the Russians took that on board," analysts in Moscow expressed some skepticism.
"The proof of the pudding will be in the eating," commented Dmitry Trenin, deputy director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Rice departed late Wednesday for the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, where she will attend a meeting of foreign ministers from member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.