Rice and Gates on Mission to Soothe

Missiles and tanks will top the official agenda when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates arrive in Moscow on Monday for two days of talks.

But getting a better idea of President-elect Dmitry Medvedev and addressing Russian concerns over possible further NATO enlargement are also likely to play a large part during the visit.

Rice and Gates will meet with President Vladimir Putin and Medvedev, as well as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Sunday.

"They will mainly speak about strategic cooperation and security issues," Peskov said.

Among concrete subjects for discussion he mentioned U.S. plans for a missile-defense shield in Central Europe and the Strategic Arms Reduction and the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe treaties.

Peskov refused to comment on the chances that the visit would help improve bilateral ties before Putin meets U.S. President George W. Bush at a NATO summit in Bucharest on April 2.

"The agenda only overlaps to a certain extent," he said, adding that the main talks would be between Rice and Gates and their Russian counterparts.

But Rice and Gates will be keenly aware of Russian discontent with NATO's agenda ahead of the Bucharest summit, which is likely to be Putin's last security meeting with the West before leaving office.

On the subject of Putin's departure, Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Krivtsov said Medvedev's assumption of power would in no way influence ties with Washington.

"Our relations are so stable that this really cannot play a role," Krivtsov said Friday.

Relations between Washington and Moscow have become increasingly strained by U.S. plans to build a missile-tracking radar system in the Czech Republic and deploy 10 interceptor missiles in Poland, plans Russia has labeled threatening and destabilizing.

Washington argues that the shield is necessary to protect against possible future attacks from rogue states like Iran, while Moscow has denied the Iranian threat and said it would target the system with its own missiles.

The U.S. has made a number of proposals for cooperation on the system in the past, including an offer to let Russian officials inspect elements of the shield, but with little success. The U.S. side is unlikely to have anything new to offer this time.

"We are not going with any new initiative in hand," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said, Reuters reported.

Rice sounded guardedly positive about the visit, saying there had been interest from Moscow in Washington's proposals. "In private, we've had good discussions with the Russians," she said Friday on a plane to Chile, The Associated Press reported.

Rice argued that this was the reason for the visit.

"We thought ... that it might be worth Bob Gates and I going out to see whether or not we can clarify and develop some of the ideas that we have put on the table when we were in Moscow the last time," she said.

Rice's words were strongly reminiscent of comments made after a visit in October, during which she and Gates failed to make any public progress and received a chilly reception from Putin and his ministers. Afterward Gates downplayed the Russian display as "mainly theater," saying the tenor of private talks was much more constructive.

U.S. officials have refused to spell out any concrete basis for their current optimism, but U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack noted last week that Rice and Gates have considerable latitude to cut deals. Their schedule is intentionally flexible to allow for the possibility of lengthy negotiating sessions in Moscow, he said, The Associated Press reported.

Kremlin spokesman Peskov and Foreign Ministry spokesman Krivtsov would only reveal that meetings with Putin and Medvedev were scheduled for Monday and a news conference was scheduled for Tuesday, after the ministerial talks.

While the biggest noise surrounding the planned missile shield has come as a result of Russian complaints, there has also been significant opposition in the Czech Republic.

Neither Poland nor the Czech Republic has officially agreed to host elements of the shield, and the Czech government faces an uphill battle for approval from its parliament for the tracking radar. On Saturday, hundreds of demonstrators gathered in Prague to protest against the site, which the U.S. plans to set up at a military base outside the Czech capital. They also demanded a referendum on the issue, The Associated Press reported.

While the Czech government has been receptive to the proposal, most Czechs oppose it, according to recent polls. The government opposes holding a referendum.

Bush last week promised to help modernize Poland's military to secure Warsaw's agreement, but U.S. defense officials are not sure they want to give Poland the air defense system it seeks.

Another potential irritant emerged last week, when information emerged that the United States is seeking to install a mobile radar site in Turkey. While Moscow has expressed disappointment in the past about a cool reaction to its offer to use a Soviet-era radar site in Azerbaijan instead of the Czech site, U.S. officials have suggested building a site in Georgia, a former Soviet republic eager to join NATO.

The U.S. State Department said Friday that it had appointed Jackie Wolcott as special envoy for nuclear nonproliferation, with the responsibility of implementing a nuclear energy deal with Russia, Reuters reported.

Wolcott previously served as U.S. alternate representative at the United Nations in New York, and was a permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva.

One of the main jobs in her new post will be to help implement a nuclear energy and nonproliferation declaration initialed by Bush and Putin last July after talks in Kennebunkport, Maine.