In Moscow, Rice signals warmer US-Russia ties

High-level talks on contentious issues such as missile defense had a markedly different tone from past rhetoric.

Kevin Lamarque/reuters
At the Kremlin Monday, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (l.) and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (r.) met President-elect Dmitri Medvedev (foreground, r.) for the first time.

A grand strategic bargain between Russia and the US could be in the wind, after years of deteriorating relations that some commentators have dubbed "a new cold war."

After two days of talks with Russian leaders, including President Vladimir Putin and President-elect Dmitri Medvedev, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told journalists it was looking likely that Mr. Putin and President Bush will "realize their strategic vision" when they meet on the sidelines of a NATO summit two weeks from now in Bucharest, Romania.

"We have agreed that there should be a joint strategic framework document for the presidents to be able to record all of the elements of the US-Russia relationship as we go forward into the future," Ms. Rice said.

The idea of a wide "strategic framework" between the two outgoing leaders was suggested by Mr. Bush in a letter to Putin early this week that talked about the presidents' legacies.

"It is a serious document, and we analyzed it carefully," Putin said Monday.

Rice suggested that cooperation against nuclear terrorism and efforts to provide peaceful atomic energy to all nations could be part of the package. But without progress on some of the key issues that still divide Russia and the US, such a deal might be distinctly hollow.

First among these is the US determination to station 10 antimissile interceptors in Poland, with an associated radar system in the Czech Republic, which Moscow regards as a direct threat to its own strategic nuclear deterrent.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday that no agreement had been reached during the two-day visit, but "the US has heard our concerns ... and we have been offered quite important and useful proposals which we will consider."

Agreeing to disagree – for now

The US argues that the antimissile plans are of limited nature and intended only to counter some future nuclear missile threat from a rogue state, such as Iran or North Korea.

"This is not the son of strategic defense initiatives of the '80s, but rather aimed at a completely different threat where you are talking about small threats – small numbers of troublesome states ... some of which are on the periphery of Russia," Rice told journalists in Moscow.

Addressing Russia's objections to the missile defense plan would nevertheless require sweeping compromises from Washington, experts say.

"It's not that we think that these proposed 10 interceptors would be a threat, but it's the foot in the door aspect of it that deeply worries us," says Yevgeny Myasnikov, an expert with the Center for Arms Control at the official Institute of Physics and Technology in Moscow. "To alleviate Russia's concerns, the Americans would have to pledge to cap any deployments or else allow us to closely monitor the system. So far, the US have been very reluctant to accept any limits or real Russian participation."

Another key irritant is the application by former Soviet states Ukraine and Georgia to join the NATO alliance, which should be decided at the Bucharest summit April 2-4.

Russia has watched with growing dismay as NATO has marched east during recent years, taking in first former Soviet Warsaw Pact allies such as Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, then ex-Soviet states like Estonia. Experts say any decision to put Ukraine or Georgia on track for NATO membership could scuttle all chances of a deal between Bush and Putin.

"We have noticed that once a state begins to be anti-Russian, they open the door to NATO," says Pavel Zolotaryov, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow. "Ukraine may be a different country, but the Ukrainians are part of the Russian people. To make them participate in war planning against another part of their historic nation is sheer nonsense."

Russian officials have suggested they might be willing, however, as part of a larger deal, to open a supply corridor through Russian and former Soviet Central Asian territory that would enable NATO to provide supplies to its military mission in Afghanistan. Presently most supplies are channeled through Pakistan, where they may be threatened by growing political turmoil.

"Russia supports the antiterror campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda," Russia's ambassador to NATO Dmitri Rogozin told journalists last week. "I hope we can reach a series of very important agreements with our Western partners at the Bucharest summit. We will demonstrate that we're ready to contribute to the reconstruction of Afghanistan."

Rice urges more freedom

Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates met Monday with President-elect Medvedev. In a meeting with Russian civil society groups Tuesday, Rice said she hoped Russia's transition to a new president in May would lead to "a more open and participatory political system" in Russia.

But Russian experts doubt Moscow's foreign policy stance will change substantially. "Putin has brought a successful, assertive foreign policy course to Russia," says Vladimir Matyash, a professor at the Diplomatic Academy in Moscow, which trains Russian diplomats. "Putin will remain in some important post, and that means the policy will be the same."

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Key issues

Missile defense: The US is closing in on agreements with Poland and the Czech Republic to host part of a missile defense system. Russia says the proposed installations in neighboring states constitute a threat to its security. The Bush administration says the system is intended to guard against rogue nations such as Iran and North Korea.

NATO expansion: As the North Atlantic Treaty Organization considers membership of three additional states at an upcoming summit April 2-4. Russia is increasingly agitated about NATO expansion.

START treaty: Russia is anxious to renew the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which runs out in 2009, in order to guard against what it claims is a growing inequity in spending on nuclear weapons.

Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE): Russia suspended its obligations to the 1990 arms control treaty in November 2007, enabling them to keep troops in Georgia and Moldova.

Sources: Agence France-Presse, International Herald Tribune, Associated Press, and Reuters