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World News

Russian, U.S. officials see chance for better ties

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia and the United States expressed optimism on Monday they could improve ties, and Pentagon chief Robert Gates said a deal might be reached on a U.S. missile shield before the end of the Bush administration.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (L) and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are greeted by Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) upon their arrival at the Kremlin in Moscow March 17, 2008. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said he saw a chance to improve relations with the United States after getting what he called a “serious document” from U.S. President George W. Bush.

That document, a letter from Bush, laid out topics for discussion both in ongoing meetings and over the longer term, possibly setting the stage for an agreement on the powers’ relationship that can be handed off to subsequent Russian and U.S. administrations, American officials said.

“If we manage to agree on its main provisions, we will be able to say that our dialogue is progressing successfully,” said Putin, who kept Gates and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice waiting at the doorway for about five minutes before their meeting in an ornate mint-green Kremlin room.

Gates and Rice offered guardedly optimistic assessments of the meetings, saying their Russian counterparts seemed interested in the U.S. proposals and in moving forward.

Still, similar meetings in the past have yielded little progress on the big issues, and when pressed, Gates said he was cautious about the potential gain.

“There was a sincere exchange of views and I think people were actually listening to each other in terms of what was being said, which gives me some hope,” he said. “But these are big issues and a lot of problems need to be solved.”

SHIELD BREAKTHROUGH?

The U.S. officials met Putin and his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, at the start of two days of talks in Moscow intended primarily to find a way out of the dispute over Washington’s plans to place parts of a missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic -- formerly Soviet-allied territory.

That issue has been a major factor in the deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations in recent years. The dispute has helped push diplomatic relations to a post-Cold War low, although economic cooperation has not been affected.

Trade between the two countries totalled $17.5 billion last year, up from $15 billion in 2006, and U.S. companies have been investing heavily in Russia.

Washington says the missile shield is needed to protect against the growing missile capabilities of “rogue” states, specifically Iran. But Moscow strongly opposes the plan, saying it could be a threat to Russia.

Gates said he thought some progress had been made. Asked whether he thought the missile system could be agreed before Bush leaves office, Gates said, “I think the answer is yes.”

“But I would also say the environment in our meetings was positive today. Whether that leads to a positive conclusion remains to be seen.”

Speaking at the same news conference, Rice said Putin wanted his experts to look over U.S. proposals, including the placement of Russian officials at the U.S.-planned missile defence sites in Poland and the Czech Republic.

She said Moscow needed assurances the system was not aimed at the Russians.

Gates said: “This is not about Russia. This is about Iran, principally. And so if they want reassurance that this is not aimed at Russia, then we’re prepared to give that.”

Rice and Gates are expected to use the second day of their talks to tackle the nuts and bolts of missile defence and other issues with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov.

On Tuesday, the two sides are also likely to talk about what will replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), a Cold War-era pact limiting long-range nuclear weapons which expires next year.

Washington is resisting pressure from Moscow to sign up to a fully fledged successor to START, but Rice has signalled the United States could be prepared to consider a slimmed-down treaty to replace it.

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