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American Forces Press Service

Openness of U.S.-Russia Talks Pleases Rice, Gates

By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service

MOSCOW, March 17, 2008 – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates expressed a surprised satisfaction with the open manner of their first meetings today with Russian leaders.

“I, frankly, was surprised at the relatively positive tone of the meetings,” Gates told reporters during a joint news conference with Rice at the day’s end. “And I think we have some opportunities here. We’ll see.”

Gates and Rice landed here today for a second round of talks aimed at gaining ground on key issues such as missile defense, economic relationships, counterterrorism and arms sales.

The two secretaries met at the Kremlin with Russian President Vladimir Putin and President-elect Dmitry Medvedev, along with the secretaries’ respective counterparts. Gates and Rice said they had an “extended” discussion with Putin and Defense Minister Anatoliy Eduardovich Serdyukov and Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Rice said the two asked Russian officials to look at all issues -- those the two countries agree on and those they don’t -- in an effort to put the two administrations on firm footing for the upcoming transitions.

“I think we had really good discussions. The atmosphere was very good,” Rice said.

Gates said the talks were an effort to flesh out some of the more conceptual notions the two brought forward during their last trip here in October. These clarifications, Gates said, were greeted with what he called “a surprising openness.”

This is good news for the two U.S. Cabinet officers, who opted to travel here in an effort to seal some deals that U.S. officials feel are close to fruition. Putin said during the meetings that some agreements between the two countries are simply a matter of “dotting the I’s.”

The United States already has agreements with Russia for cooperation in the areas of counterterrorism, nuclear terrorism, economic issues and North Korea and Iran, Rice said. Also, the two countries are “pretty close” to closing the deal on a civil-nuclear cooperation agreement that the two sides have been negotiating, she said.

Sticking points remain in missile defense and developing a strategic arms reductions treaty, but Gates and Rice both said the leaders sat at the table today and discussed even these matters openly.

“We were impressed with the favorable atmosphere and receptivity to pursuing these issues and pursuing them in a creative way,” Rice said.

Gates said that some of Russia’s outspoken opposition to the plan could have been because of misunderstandings, as opposed to misgivings.

“I think actually there were some misunderstandings on the Russians’ side in terms of what we were proposing. And we had the opportunity to clarify that … in a way that I think was positively received,” Gates said.

Still, Gates would not go as far as saying that he was optimistic about the outcome of the talks as they pertain to the U.S. plan to base defensive missiles and radar in Poland and the Czech Republic to protect Europe from ballistic missile attacks by rogue nations, most notably Iran.

“The Russians hate the idea of missile defense,” he said. “We are trying to figure out a way to make them partners in it in a way that assuages their concerns and potentially helps them see opportunities for them in cooperation with us on this.”

Russian senior officials have expressed fears the missile defense system could be used against their country. U.S. officials want to extend the zone of coverage for the potential long-range missile threat from Iran or others in the region.

Rice said the purpose of the talks is to “try to bridge both the conceptual gap and a confidence gap about what the missile defense system is for and to assure through concrete measures to the Russians that it is not, in fact, aimed at them.”

Gates said he can understand the Russians’ concern that at some time in the future, U.S. intentions for the system might change, and said he assured them that limits could be negotiated to ensure that doesn’t happen.

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

Gates said he believes the two countries could reach an agreement on missile defense before the end of the Bush administration in January.

“I would also say that the environment in our meetings was positive today. Whether that leads to a positive conclusion remains to be seen,” Gates said. “There was a sincere exchange of views, and I think people were actually listening to each other, … which gives me some hope. These are big issues, and a lot of problems need to be solved.”

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