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US, Russia seek progress over missile shield

17/03/2008 - 13:34

By Sue Pleming and Kristin Roberts

MOSCOW (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Ricesaid she hoped talks in Moscow on Monday would set a positivetone for relations with Russia's next president and easedifferences over a planned missile defence shield.

But Russian media quoted officials in Moscow as sayingprogress would be possible on the missile defence shield, whichMoscow opposes, only if Rice and U.S. Defence Secretary RobertGates were bringing new proposals from Washington.

Rice and Gates will meet their Russian counterparts,President Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, who succeeds himas president on May 7. It will be Medvedev's first meetingswith senior U.S. officials since he was elected on March 2.

"We want to lay a good foundation for U.S.-Russianrelations going into the future despite our differences," Ricetold reporters on her plane as she flew to Moscow.

"I don't know what the course of Russian policy will be butfrankly, I don't think there will be any major shifts inpolicy."

Making their second joint trip to Moscow in six months,Rice and Gates will try again to find a way out of a disputeover Washington's plans to station elements of its plannedmissile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Washington says the missile shield system is designed toprotect against attacks from what it calls rogue states, andspecifically Iran. Moscow strongly opposes the system and saysit could be directed at Russia.

The dispute has helped push diplomatic relations betweenthe United States and Russia to a post-Cold War low, althougheconomic cooperation and trade links are at unprecedentedlevels.

Rice said the two sides might not agree on all elements ofthe shield plan, but she hoped they could cooperate and find acommon understanding of the threat of attacks.

"We may have enough bridging of that (differences) so thatthey and we have some confidence that a missile defence systemis really aimed at that threat," Rice said.

DIFFERENCES

Despite her comments, differences are emerging overcompromise proposals both sides put forward last year to easethe dispute.

Gates told reporters as he flew to Russia that he expectedMoscow to respond to earlier U.S. proposals, including oneoffering Russia access to missile shield sites.

"We've put a lot on the table and now it's time for them toreciprocate," Gates said. "At some point the Russians are goingto have to decide whether they want to be true partners, whichwe are offering, or whether this is just all a sham game ontheir part to stall the whole deal."

Russian media quoted officials in Moscow as saying it wasdown to Washington to renew their proposals.

Russia's Itar-Tass news agency quoted an unnamed source inthe Russian Defence Ministry as saying progress was possibleonly if Rice and Gates "bring with them new proposals that takeinto account Moscow's concerns."

"Otherwise ... everything will be reduced to each siderepeating positions that have been known for a long time," itquoted the official as saying.

The two sides will also discuss what will replace theStrategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which expires in 2009.The pact, signed in Moscow in 1991, set ceilings on the size ofthe Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals.

Russia is seeking agreement on replacing the deal. AlthoughWashington has balked at a formal arrangement, Rice indicated asoftening in that position.

"I don't think we have objections to a formal agreement.The more important question is what is it that we will beformalising," said Rice.

She said the previous treaty was so long it "almost filledthis (aircraft) cabin" and this was not needed. "It's a verydifferent world now," she said.

(Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Timothy Heritage)


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