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American Forces Press Service

Putin Hints at Progress in Talks with Rice, Gates

By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service

MOSCOW, March 17, 2008 – Talks between top U.S. and Russian officials got off to a positive start today, with Russian President Vladimir Putin hinting at progress on key issues between the two countries.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates arrived here today for the second round of so-called “two-plus-two” talks with their Russian counterparts aimed at gaining ground on key issues such as missile defense, economic relationships, counterterrorism and arms sales.

But on top of the agenda, Gates told reporters while en route here, is locking in some type of commitment by Russia for the U.S. plan to post defensive missiles in Europe.

“We have come to Moscow outside of the usual rotation … in hopes that we can make progress and complete areas where there is agreement … and make progress in those areas where we do have disagreements,” Gates said.

Putin expressed his delight that the secretaries chose to meet on Russian soil for the second time in six months. He called last October’s talks “very productive.”

Putin said he reviewed a letter he recently received from President Bush that outlined the U.S. agenda for the talks. A Pentagon official traveling with Gates said the letter was sent in advance of the two secretaries’ visit to lay out the issues between the two sides.

“It is a serious document which we have carefully analyzed,” Putin said. “If we manage to agree on its main provisions, we will be able to say that our dialogue is progressing successfully."

Still, the Russian president cited “a lot of outstanding problems to discuss.”

In the first meeting at the Kremlin after arriving, Rice and Gates sat across the table from Russian President-elect Dmitry Medvedev and Defense Minister Anatoliy Eduardovich Serdyukov and Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov. The newly elected president called the agenda for the talks “existential,” but said that there are still key differences between the two countries.

“There are issues where we still have differences in positions -- that is missile defense and (a nuclear arms treaty), but we also have a common will and commitment to move ahead," Medvedev said. “We need to provide for continuity in the Russian-U.S. relationship.”

Gates acknowledged the differences and echoed Medvedev’s desire to move forward. “There are many ways in which we are already working together, and we can strengthen those,” he said. “And those where we have disagreements, we can see if we can make progress.”

In a later meeting, Putin was even more positive, saying that for some issues it would simply be a matter of “dotting the I’s” to reach final agreements. But he didn’t mention specific issues.

As the two administrations begin a transition period, leaders from both sides emphasized the need to lay a foundation of agreements that would provide a transition between the top leaders of the two nations.

“We need to make certain there is a firm foundation for continuity … in the U.S.-Russia relationship, because there are no problems that will be solved in a better way,” Rice said to Putin.

Gates brought some humor to the proceedings, cracking a joke about coming to the table with his arm in a sling.

“With a broken arm, I won’t be nearly as difficult a negotiator,” Gates told Medvedev. “We’ll see,” the Russian president-elect shot back jokingly. Gates broke his arm when he slipped and fell outside his home during a Feb. 12 ice storm.

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