Pessimistic Note Sounded After US Officials' Moscow Visit

By Sergei Blagov | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

Moscow ( - Russian politicians and commentators appear pessimistic about prospects of easing tensions between Moscow and Washington, following a visit to the Russian capital by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

The two held talks over the weekend with President Vladimir Putin and also participated in "two plus two" meetings with their Russian counterparts, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov.

Differences between the two sides were evident during the visit, including U.S. concerns about Russian arms sales to Iran, Russia's opposition to U.S. plans to deploy a missile defense shield in eastern Europe, and U.S. uncertainties over Russia's future political direction.

Putin is opposed to the ballistic missile defense (BMD) plans, which would entail a radar base in the Czech Republic and 10 interceptor missiles in Poland. The U.S. says the shield is necessary to safeguard against future missile attack from states like Iran; Russia says it is aimed at weakening its missile deterrent.

Gen. Viktor Yesin, a former head of the Russian Strategic Missile Forces, said the alleged Iranian threat was a pretext for a system that would in fact be aimed against Russian missile capabilities.

He said the initial deployment of 10 missiles in Poland could easily be followed by 100 or 200 more.

The Kommersant daily newspaper characterized the meetings as Putin effectively giving Rice and Gates an ultimatum: respect Russia's security interests, or Russia will dismantle post-Cold War security arrangements.

Putin has already threatened withdrawal from the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty -- which limited troop and tank numbers -- by the end of the year, and said last June hinted that Russia could aim missiles at Europe if Washington followed through on the missile shield plans.

He went a step further during the Rice-Gates visit, saying that Russia may withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Signed in 1987 between the U.S. and the soon-to-crumble Soviet Union, the INF eliminated medium-range nuclear and conventional missiles from Europe.

Putin attributed the possible move to concerns that the INF does not include other countries, a stance backed up by Gen. Alexander Zavarzin, deputy head of the defense committee of the State Duma, who said the fact that many of Russia's neighbors are not restricted by missile agreements threatens Russia's security. (China, India and Pakistan are among countries in Russia's neighborhood that have medium-range missiles.)

Some military analysts think Putin's proposal may be yet another ploy, tied in to his unhappiness over Washington's plans to deploy a BMD system in a region formerly within Moscow's sphere of influence. The INF restricts Russia's ability to aim medium-range missiles at Europe.

Although the visit by Rice and Gates appeared to have achieved little, some here tried to sound optimistic. Despite an absence of agreement, the bilateral talks were very important, said Konstantin Kosachev, head of the international affairs committee of the State Duma, The next "two plus two" meeting, due in the first half of 2008, would bring more results, he predicted.

But Andrei Kokoshin, Duma deputy and former head of Russia's Security Council, said the two sides were divided on many fronts, and that on some issues, Russia enjoys better mutual understanding with China, India and some European nations than with the U.S.

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