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. US top guns head for first talks with Russia's president elect

by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) March 15, 2008
Top US officials Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates are due in Moscow Monday for their first meeting with Dmitry Medvedev since he was elected Russia's new president, as political transitions in both countries complicate tense defense negotiations.

Secretary of State Rice and Defense Secretary Gates will also meet President Vladimir Putin, who leaves his office to Medvedev in May, as well as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, officials said.

The talks will try to bridge gaps over US missile defense plans, the fate of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), Russia's suspension of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, NATO's eastward expansion and Kosovo's recent independence.

But analysts expect Rice and Gates to also use the two-day visit to size up the baby-faced 42-year-old Medvedev and determine how independent he will be from Putin, his mentor who is expected to become a powerful prime minister.

"The Americans will be looking at Medvedev, want to get acquainted with him, to watch him ahead of the G8 summit," said Alexei Makarkin, the deputy director of the Center for Political Technology, a Moscow think tank.

The summit of the Group of Eight leading industrial nations, due to be held in Japan from July 7-9, is expected to be Medvedev's first big foray onto the world stage.

Analysts also wonder how much progress can be made with not just the handover in Moscow but the US elections coming in November.

"Russia has this historic fear that we are being surrounded, from the West and from the south," Makarkin said. "Trust is today at a minimum."

Makarkin said the Russians are awaiting the outcome of the US elections.

But Jon Wolfsthal, security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here, told AFP Rice and Gates may find this to be "the last window" for progress before President George W. Bush becomes a lame duck.

Moscow angrily opposes Washington's hopes to deploy a missile defense radar in the Czech republic and 10 interceptor missiles in Poland by 2012 as part of a shield that Bush says will counter a possible missile launch by Iran.

Russia says it views the deployment of such a system as a threat to its security, and has warned it may target the host countries -- both formerly Soviet satellites -- with nuclear weapons.

Bush has met separately in the past two weeks with the Czech and Polish prime ministers. The Czech prime minister suggested a deal was imminent, while Poland's defense minister now says a decision is "much closer."

US officials note that the visit will come ahead of an early April NATO summit that they expect will further strain relations because of possible eastward expansion of the alliance designed to contain the former Soviet Union.

During a trip to South America, Rice conceded Friday that the United States would not be making any new proposals on missile defense beyond what was discussed on a similar trip in October.

"They showed some interest in those proposals, and so we will go and will develop it further."

Analysts said the two sides have discussed various ways to cooperate on missile defense, including having Russian observers visit the Polish and Czech sites.

Wolfsthal said he believes the differences over missile defense can be resolved but they are complicated by Russia's objections to the constant expansion of the (NATO) North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Another sore point is START.

Washington wants to adjust the verification mechanisms under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which can be renewed when it expires in December 2009, to apply to the 2002 Moscow Treaty on nuclear weapon reductions.

James Collins, who was US ambassador in Moscow from 1999 to 2001, doubted whether much progress could be achieved on START because Washington is resisting Russian demands for a binding treaty.

"The Russians are absolutely adamant and I don't see them budging on this at all, that whatever arrangement is to follow start has to be legally binding: i.e. in essence a treaty," Collins told AFP.

But the relationship is not just about disagreement, analysts point out.

There will be also talks on cooperation in fighting terrorism and checking the spread of nuclear weapons -- including preventing Iran from obtaining an atomic bomb and forcing North Korea to dismantle its nuclear arms program.

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NATO, EU should pool defence resources: Scheffer
Brussels (AFP) March 15, 2008
NATO and the European Union should pool defence resources to cut costs and ensure that equipment and troops can be found when needed, NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said Saturday.

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