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U.S. is trying new tack with Russia

Times Staff Writer

In an effort to repair its strained relationship with the Kremlin, the Bush administration announced Tuesday that it had combined more than a dozen bilateral issues into a single document that it hopes will breathe new life into intractable negotiations between the governments.

But U.S. officials acknowledged that they had made little progress on the most difficult issue blocking such a grand bargain: a new missile defense system the administration plans to build in Eastern Europe, which Russia believes will threaten its security.

The new arrangement, unveiled by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during two days of talks here, includes no new initiatives and, in some cases, simply restates existing agreements, such as those the countries have reached on nuclear terrorism.

But a senior U.S. official involved in the negotiations said the administration thought bilateral security talks needed to be restructured because both sides had become overwhelmed by the fierce disagreement on a few disputes.

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“It was our judgment, looking at the whole of the U.S.-Russia relationship, that there was a dominant theme, on both sides, that things were slipping in a negative direction,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity when discussing internal decision-making. “That was becoming conventional wisdom, and there was obviously a basis for it.”

The document brought by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Rice included areas of agreement and dispute as diverse as the missile defense system, Russia’s bid for membership in the World Trade Organization and nuclear proliferation. The goal was to use progress on some issues as a starting point for talks that would help focus attention on the tougher questions.

Despite the new effort, daylong talks held by Rice and Gates with their Russian counterparts that focused on the missile defense system produced few results.

Russian officials said their objections to placing the system in Eastern Europe remained and asked that the U.S. officials put their proposals in writing yet again for consideration by Russian experts.

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“In principle, our positions have not changed,” Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said at a news conference attended by all four ministers. “Today, we have heard a number of measures, and we hope they will be presented to us in writing.

“Our experts then will have an opportunity to discuss them and understand what stands behind them.”

The U.S. officials came to Moscow with no new proposals to assuage Russian concerns that the system, to be built in the former communist bloc countries of Poland and the Czech Republic, would be a threat to Russian rockets. The U.S. says the system is aimed at intercepting a possible missile strike by Iran.

But Gates said he was able to clarify the Russians’ misunderstandings of proposals offered to the Kremlin six months ago, which include offers to allow Moscow to link to the U.S.-built system and to delay turning the system on until it has been established that Iran has tested a long-range missile capable of reaching Europe.

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Still, Gates, who had suggested before the meetings that Moscow may be stalling and said it was time for the Russians to reciprocate to U.S. proposals, appeared frustrated that the Kremlin had not taken more concrete action.

“Now they feel the need to study them in greater detail,” Gates said at the news conference. “I would expect and hope we would hear back reasonably quickly.”

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peter.spiegel@latimes.com

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