Russia Pledges Dialogue, But Tensions Remain Ahead of Summit

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

Moscow ( - Ahead of a summit with President Bush in Maine this weekend, Russian President Vladimir Putin held a closed-door meeting here with top NATO officials in an apparent bid to ease tensions between Russia and the West.

The Kremlin pledged to continue dialogue on thorny issues but made little secret of its ongoing disputes over various elements of Western policy.

Russia has strongly opposed U.S. plans to deploy elements of a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov on Wednesday repeated the criticism, saying the defense shield plans threaten cooperation between Russia and NATO.

Earlier this month, Putin suggested that Russia would aim missiles at Europe if Washington followed through on the missile shield plans. He later said he would back down if the U.S. agreed to use facilities located in Azerbaijan (and leased to Russia), rather than site facilities in the Czech Republic and Poland.

Putin told NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer in Moscow this week that dialogue would "help solve all problems for the sake of security and global peace," but the visiting NATO head made it clear that Putin's earlier remarks about targeting Russian missiles at Europe was damaging.

De Hoop Scheffer's visit coincides with the fifth anniversary of the NATO-Russia Council and comes 10 years after the Russia and NATO signed a cooperation and security agreement.

Since the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has watched with dismay as its former satellites in eastern Europe moved increasingly into the Western orbit. The notion of NATO or U.S. facilities in parts of Europe it has long dominated draws strong reactions here.

The two sides also differ strongly on the future of Kosovo. NATO hopes the issue will be resolved as soon as possible by the adoption of a U.N. resolution proposing internationally supervised independence for the Balkan enclave.

Kosovo is a province of Serbia -- a Russian ally - but has been under U.N. administration since 1999. Belgrade says it will accept full autonomy for the territory, but opposes independence.

De Hoop Scheffer urged Moscow not to block the U.N. resolution on Kosovo, but Sergei Mironov, speaker of the Federation Council or upper house of Russian parliament, said this week Russia would likely veto the measure.

As it frequently does during times of tension with the West, Russia has sought to focus attention on its military might and nuclear deterrent.

Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov announced Tuesday that the country has started mass production of Topol-M strategic missiles, stressing that they were not prototypes.

Last month, Russian criticism of the U.S. missile shield proposals was accompanied by live tests of its latest weapons. On May 29, Russia test-fired a new ballistic multiple-warhead missile that it says will become the backbone of the country's strategic nuclear deterrent. Putin said at the time the tests had been prompted by the U.S. missile defense plans.

Disagreements over missile defense and other issues are expected to top the agenda when Putin meets Bush at the weekend.

In yet another irritant just days before Putin meets with Bush on Sunday and Monday, he will on Thursday welcome to the Kremlin one of Washington's most outspoken critics, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The left-wing populist has stepped up military purchases from Russia, buying fighter planes, helicopters and assault rifles, and discussing the possibility of also acquiring submarines and air defense systems.

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