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West need not fear resurgent Russia: Ivanov

MUNICH, Germany (Reuters) - The West need not fear Russia’s growing economic and political clout, First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said on Sunday in a conciliatory speech that called for a new global arms control regime.

(L-R) NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Russia's Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov and Defence Secretary Robert Gates chat during the 44th Conference on Security Policy in Munich February 9, 2008. Russia and the United States must take leadership in discussions on a new international arms regime, Ivanov said on Sunday. REUTERS/Michael Dalder

The warm tone was all the more striking because it came at the same Munich conference where President Vladimir Putin last year accused the United States of sparking a new arms race -- an attack he echoed in a speech in Moscow last Friday.

But Ivanov is no longer seen as a contender to succeed Putin after a March 2 presidential election, and it was not clear whether the speech signaled a shift in Moscow’s ties with the West or simply a pause in a period of escalating tension.

“Getting richer, Russia will not pose a threat to the security of other countries. Yet our influence on global processes will continue to grow,” Ivanov, speaking fluent English, told an audience including Pentagon chief Robert Gates.

Of Europe’s dependence on Russia’s huge oil and gas reserves, he said: “We are not masterminding any kind of energy expansion. We simply do our best to achieve maximum economic benefits in the existing economic situation.”

Ivanov noted revenues swelled by higher fuel prices had pushed Russian gold and currency reserves close to an unprecedented $500 billion and reaffirmed Moscow’s determination to become one of the world’s top five economies by 2020.

He made only passing reference in his speech to a bitter row between Moscow and Washington over U.S. plans to set up a missile shield in eastern Europe, a move Russian officials in the past have attacked as targeting Russia.

“CHINESE MODEL”

Instead he urged the United States to help lead efforts with Russia to replace the SALT 1 arms control pact agreed during the Cold War with an international, legally binding regime.

“As I see it, this is precisely an area of international relations where Russia and the United States not merely could, but are directly obliged, to show leadership,” Ivanov said.

“Today there are several nuclear powers in the world and even more countries with a strong missile capacity ... Sooner or later, we will have to start working in a multilateral format.”

Putin’s preferred successor, the liberal Dmitry Medvedev, has not set out his foreign policy priorities yet ahead of March polls and it was not clear what status Ivanov’s call had.

The past year has seen a deepening chill in ties between Moscow and the West, marked by disputes over the U.S. missile shield and the Western-backed independence claim of Serbia’s majority ethnic Albanian Kosovo province.

Rights watchdog the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe announced last week it was withdrawing its Russian election observers, blaming restrictions imposed by the Kremlin.

After his speech, Ivanov was pressed by U.S. delegates about democratic deficits in Russia, one U.S. congresswoman accusing Moscow of having a one-party political system similar to China.

“We don’t have a Chinese model. We have a multi-party system,” Ivanov replied coldly.

“As for the presidential elections, we have four candidates, not two like in some countries,” he added, with a smile to his U.S. questioners, in apparent reference to the likelihood of a two-horse race in this year’s U.S. presidential campaign.

Medvedev has enjoyed full Kremlin backing and wide coverage on state television. A poll last week showed him leading his nearest challenger, nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, by 56 percentage points.

Additional reporting by Noah Barkin in Munich and Oleg Shchedrov in Moscow, editing by Tim Pearce

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