Gorbachev upbeat on U.S.-Russia ties after Obama visit

NEW YORK Thu Mar 26, 2009 6:32pm EDT

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev gives a speech during the 'Cinema For Peace 2009' charity gala at the 59th Berlinale film festival in Berlin February 9, 2009. REUTERS/Jens Kalaene/Pool

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev gives a speech during the 'Cinema For Peace 2009' charity gala at the 59th Berlinale film festival in Berlin February 9, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Jens Kalaene/Pool

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev said on Thursday he was more optimistic about the prospect of improving U.S.-Russian relations after meeting U.S. President Barack Obama earlier this month.

Ties between the former Cold War enemies have been strained by NATO expansion, a planned U.S.-backed missile defense system in Eastern Europe, tensions between Russia and Georgia and differences on how to deal with Iran's nuclear program.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Obama will meet in London on April 1 ahead of the G20 most developed nations summit. Gorbachev met with Obama and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden last week, the latest in a series of high-level visits.

"I heard from the president (Obama) that he wanted to improve relations with Russia," Gorbachev said at a meeting of the American Jewish Historical Society in New York where he appeared with former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz.

"Also I had a detailed one-hour conversation with the vice president and ... I am more optimistic today about improved relations between our two nations," Gorbachev said.

A delegation led by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visited Russia earlier in March and met Medvedev.

Shultz, who made a similar visit to Moscow under former U.S. President George W. Bush, said such contacts were "an effort to try to help get a constructive possibility going."

DIFFERENT AGENDAS

Washington wants Russia's help in curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions, reining in North Korea's missile program, allowing supplies through its territory to NATO forces in Afghanistan and fighting the global financial crisis.

The Kremlin's agenda is very different.

Key disagreements include U.S. plans to install elements of an anti-missile system in Poland and other parts of Europe, NATO's expansion into ex-Soviet states, Russia's role in the war in Georgia last year and assessments of Iranian threat.

Asked about the possibility of a deal whereby Washington would compromise on missile defense in return for Russian pressure on Iran, Shultz, who was secretary of state under Ronald Reagan from 1982-89, said he did not expect one.

He said Russia had made interesting proposals on missile defense and that cooperation on a system to intercept ballistic missiles was worth examining because it was "in our interest and their interest."

On Iran, Shultz said, it was not in Russia's interest for Iran to get nuclear weapons.

Gorbachev, who won the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end the Cold War, said he thought "almost the same thing." "We have a common position ... that it is unacceptable for Iran to have nuclear weapons," he said, speaking through an interpreter.

But the former Soviet leader said the United States should emphasize dialogue rather than force in dealing with countries like Iran and Syria.

(Editing by Michelle Nichols and Paul Simao)

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