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Putin welcomes Rice, Gates

Times Staff Writer

Russian President Vladimir Putin, departing from his recent practice of caustically lecturing senior U.S. officials, warmly greeted the top two American foreign policy makers Monday and told them that some ongoing differences between their countries might be resolved soon.

But he warned that many disputes remained, and there appeared to be little progress on the thorniest disagreement between the two nations: the Bush administration’s plan to build a missile defense system in Eastern Europe, which Russia vehemently opposes.

“We believe that in some of these issues we can probably dot the i’s and reach final agreement,” Putin said. “There are still a lot of outstanding problems that need to be discussed.”

Putin’s comments came ahead of his meeting here with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. The U.S. officials also spent an hour with Putin’s successor, President-elect Dmitry Medvedev, who takes office in May. Rice and Gates are scheduled to meet with their Russian counterparts today.

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Although Putin did not say in which areas he anticipated new agreements, Rice told reporters after the meeting that they probably would be in less-contentious areas of the relationship, such as civilian nuclear cooperation and Russian accession to the World Trade Organization.

The two U.S. Cabinet officials acknowledged that the sides remained far apart on the issue of the missile defense system, as well as on American efforts to gain a new agreement regulating nuclear arms that would replace Cold War treaties.

But Gates, who had expressed frustration with what the U.S. sees as Russian intransigence on missile defense ahead of the talks, said he now believed the Kremlin was interested in seriously considering a U.S. proposal to link Russian defenses with the new U.S. system.

The Bush administration says the system, which would be built in Poland and the Czech Republic, is needed to guard Europe against potential missile strikes from Iran. The Kremlin argues that the defense system could be used against Russian ballistic rockets, reducing the weapons’ value as a deterrent against attack.

“I frankly was surprised at the relatively positive tone of the meetings,” Gates told reporters traveling with him. “And I think we have some opportunities here.”

Putin also disclosed that he had received a letter from President Bush ahead of the meeting, a missive he called a “very serious document.”

U.S. officials described the letter, sent last week, as an attempt by Bush to gauge whether Putin was interested in holding substantive talks. They suggested that Bush would send Rice and Gates to Moscow only if the Russian government was willing to offer concrete responses to recent American proposals.

Despite Putin’s warm words and the upbeat tenor of the meeting, neither side expressed much hope of substantive progress on the missile defense program.

During a similar visit six months ago, Rice and Gates presented a new plan that would link the inauguration of the system to direct proof of long-range Iranian missile capabilities.

But in brief remarks ahead of his meeting with Rice and Gates, Medvedev said the U.S. and Russia still had disagreements about the system. Gates was similarly cautious, despite saying Putin appeared “intrigued” by the U.S. proposal.

“I wouldn’t say I’m optimistic on any of this stuff,” Gates said. “The Russians hate the idea of missile defense. We are trying to figure out a way to make them partners in it in a way that assuages their concerns.”

The meeting with Medvedev, 42, was the first by a high-level U.S. delegation since he won election as president this month.

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peter.spiegel@latimes.com


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