Russian President Vladimir Putin said Monday he had received a letter from President Bush that lays out U.S. missile defense provisions and the two sides can probably reach agreement. Still, Russia's incoming president predicted intense negotiations to come.
"Six months have passed and we believe that in some of these issues we can probably dot the I's and reach final agreement," Putin said, referring to the last round of U.S.-Russia negotiation on the Bush administration's plans to build a missile defense system in Europe.
Putin called Mr. Bush's letter a "very serious document." Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said it outlined what Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wished to talk about during Tuesday's scheduled talks with their counterparts in Moscow.
"If we can reach agreement on its most important provisions than we will be able to state that our dialogue is proceeding successfully. There are still a lot of outstanding problems that need to be discussed," Putin said, sitting across at table from Rice and Gates ahead of their meeting.
The tone of the meeting was warm, in contrast to past Putin sessions where he has been known to make a speech, setting out a Russian hard-line.
Putin's hand-picked successor, President-elect Dmitry Medvedev, also set a positive mood when he met earlier with Gates and Rice, greeting them and smiling often - a much less imposing figure than Putin, who has moved to consolidate his power and control of Russia in recent years.
Medvedev said Russia still has questions about U.S. missile defense plans but, like Putin, he said he thinks they can be resolved.
"We are determined to go ahead," Medvedev said. "We need to provide for continuity in the Russian-U.S. relationship."
Rice agreed with both Putin and, separately, Medvedev, saying the U.S. and Russia have "a firm foundation for cooperation" on missile defense, which the United States sees as a way to defend against missiles from nations such as Iran and North Korea.
Gates, who had taken a hard line going into the talks, told Medvedev and then Putin that he hoped the two sides can bridge differences.
The Pentagon chief said the U.S. and Russia agree on some issues, and "those where we have disagreements we can see if we can make progress."
Gates, still wearing a sling after fracturing his arm in a fall, joked about his injury as a negotiating tactic.
"With a broken arm, I won't be nearly as difficult a negotiator," Gates told Medvedev
Responded Medvedev in Russian: "We'll see."
En route to Moscow from Washington, Gates said that it is up to the Russians to show they are not pursuing a "sham game" to thwart U.S. efforts to establish missile defense sites in Europe.
He and Rice saw some prospect of progress on long-stalled negotiations over U.S. proposals to establish missile defense sites in central Europe, Gates added with a note of caution.
"I wouldn't get too enthusiastic at this point," he said.
Gates earlier set a tough tone, questioning the sincerity of the Russian government's objections to missile defense.
"My view is we've put a lot on the table" in recent negotiations, Gates said. "Now it's time for them to reciprocate."
Gates and Rice were seeing Putin and Medvedev before daylong talks Tuesday with the Russian defense and foreign ministers.
Gates said he and Rice were bringing no new missile defense proposals to the talks, which will range from cooperation against terrorism, future arms control and economic relations. U.S. officials have said they have "tweaked" previous proposals for cooperation that got a mixed reaction from Moscow.
Rice suggested the Russians are watching the U.S. election season with an eye toward cutting a deal, or at least making headway while there is a known commodity in the White House.
In general, Rice, said, "people want to get as much done as they can, because they sense American politics are going to be unpredictable."
Added Gates: "At some point the Russians are going to have to decide whether they want to be true partners - which we're offering - or whether this is all just a sham game on their part to (stop) the whole deal."
Rice would not predict a breakthrough but said Russia may be more convinced of the shield's utility, and that the two sides see opportunities for technical collaboration.
"I would hope that we can move from the conceptual level to some more specific proposals," Rice told reporters flying with her to the joint meetings.
Without offering specifics, Rice indicated that the two sides are nearer to an arrangement to assess and plan side-by-side for theoretical missile threats from such rogue states as Iran or North Korea, and for ways to assure Russia that the shield is being developed and deployed as advertised. That could include both human and electronic monitoring of sites planned for Poland and the Czech Republic, Rice said.
The Bush administration is negotiating with Poland to establish a base there for 10 missile interceptors. They would be linked to a radar site in the Czech Republic, if the Czech government agrees. The system would be part of a wider network of interceptors, radars and communications sites in the United States and elsewhere for defending the United States and its allies against long-range missiles.
In their meetings in Moscow last October, Gates and Rice said the Bush administration would considering delaying activation of the proposed sites in Poland and the Czech Republic until hard evidence is in hand regarding Iran's development of a ballistic missile capable of reaching Europe and beyond. The Russians have not accepted that proposal.
Gates said Monday the offer is still on the table.
Besides missile defense, Washington and Moscow are holding out hope for progress on other security issues, including a new agreement on verification of strategic nuclear arms reductions that were agreed in the Moscow Treaty of 2002. Verification rules for arms reductions under that treaty are governed by the 1991 START accord, which is due to expire next year and thus need replacement.
The Russians have sought a formal verification regime to replace the START deal, whereas the Americans have wanted a simpler arrangement.