By Jill Dougherty and Jamie Crawford
Even before their meeting at the United Nations began Monday, it was downgraded from a talk over breakfast to a quick discussion of what can be done immediately to end the descent into seemingly unstoppable violence in Syria.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called her meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov "constructive."
A senior administration official told CNN it was "pretty straightforward. ... No drama but little movement."
Another senior administration official described the meeting as "workmanlike."
The banality of that description stood in stark contrast to the carnage on the streets of Syria.
Reporters could hear that worry in the tone of Clinton's comments to them just after her meeting with Lavrov.
"I pointed out my very strong view that the alternative to our unity on these points will be bloody international conflict with dangerous consequences for the whole region," Clinton said.
Even before she and Lavrov met, their differences were on full display at the U.N. Security Council.
Lavrov warned that Russia will not stand for any repeat in Syria of what happened in Libya. In his view, the no-fly zone in Libya was a cover for a "massive bombing campaign."
"Whatever goals might be set in any given situation, they should not be achieved by misleading the international community or manipulating the U.N. Security Council," he said.
Russia, Lavrov said, would be willing to support a U.N. Security Council resolution that abides by five "principles" Russia is insisting on: ending the violence "from all sources"; setting up an impartial monitoring mechanism; no "outside interference"; access for humanitarian aid; and support for Kofi Annan's mission to launch "political dialogue" between the Syrian government and opposition groups.
Those opposition groups, Lavrov charged, have turned into "combat units." He cited the Free Syrian Army, the largest armed opposition group fighting the Syrian army, as well as extremist groups, which he said include al Qaeda, that have committed a "series of murderous terrorist acts."
"Making hasty demands for regime change," Lavrov said, "imposing unilateral sanctions designed to trigger economic difficulties and social tensions in the country, inducing the opposition to continue its confrontation with authorities instead of promoting dialogue, making calls to support armed confrontation, and even to foreign military intervention - all of the above are risky recipes of 'geopolitical engineering' that can only result in the spread of conflict."
Clinton addressed the Security Council immediately after Lavrov. She said there is no comparison between actions by Syrian government forces and civilian groups: "We reject any equivalence between premeditated murders by a government's military machine and the actions of civilians under siege driven to self-defense."
She didn't shy away from taking direct aim at Russia: "We believe that now is the time for all nations, even those who have previously blocked our efforts, to stand behind the humanitarian and political approach spelled out by the Arab League. The international community should say with one voice - without hesitation or caveat –that the killing of innocent Syrians must stop and a political transition must begin."
Russia says it wants to stop the killing too, but a senior U.S. official told CNN that the "core difference" between Washington and Moscow right now is the sequence of steps that would bring that about.
Clinton insists the Assad government must immediately stop the violence before the opposition lays down its arms: "Once the Syrian government has acted, then we would expect others as well to cease the violence. But there cannot be an expectation for defenseless citizens in the face of artillery assaults to end their capacity to defend themselves before there's a commitment by the Assad regime to do so."
Lavrov, however, demands a simultaneous cease-fire by all: "This requires immediate end of violence as the number one priority. And for this we shall not really think of putting the government and the opposition at one level, whether it's acceptable or not. It's about saving lives. Cease-fire is an absolute must."
In New York, Clinton did not explicitly call for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, as she has in many previous comments about Syria. Russia has made it clear it does not support what it considers "regime change." A senior administration official insists, however, that the "political transition" the United States wants would "of course ... include him stepping down."
Last month Russia, along with China, stymied efforts by the United States and others to pass a U.N. resolution that would have condemned the violence in Syria, and Moscow remains a key component of any possible solution.
But the foreign minister said, "It is not honest when people say that everything depends on Russia. ... We all understand that today's problems of the world cannot be resolved by the desire or efforts, even assistance, even action, by one country alone."
Syria is showing, however, that although one country may not be able to resolve everything, it can make it more difficult to reach that resolution.