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Obama heads to Russia to warm chilled ties

Moscow — US President Barack Obama visits Russia Monday hoping to seal agreements on military transit and a key nuclear arms treaty to revive a relationship that last year plunged to a post Cold War low.

Obama is to hold several hours of meetings with President Dmitry Medvedev but his shorter breakfast encounter with Vladimir Putin Tuesday could yet be chilly after he remarked that the prime minister remained stuck in the past.

Both sides have vowed to press the "reset button" after Russia’s war with Georgia last year capped a series of diplomatic rows. But potential tensions remain, most notably on missile defence.

"The summit will be billed as a success," said Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Centre in Moscow.

"The question is which way from the summit, whether the summit leads to a relationship that will gradually undo the real problems."

Russian officials have said Medvedev and Obama will sign a deal allowing the United States to transport military supplies for operations in Afghanistan across Russian territory.

Previously, Washington has only been allowed by Moscow to transport non-lethal supplies by rail. The new deal should allow the United States to transport military supplies across Russia by air.

The two countries are also set to sign a declaration setting up the framework for the renewal of the Cold War-era Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which expires in early December.

"I expect that there will be an announcement," White House Coordinator for Weapons of Mass Destruction Gary Samore told reporters.

"There certainly won’t be an agreement on the end deal… but I think you will see an announcement that indicates some progress toward reaching that objective," he said, referring to a deal by year’s end.

But the Interfax news agency quoted a high-ranking Russian foreign ministry source as saying officials from the two sides have yet to agree the wording of the document, with time running out ahead of Obama’s arrival.

The Obama administration has yet to say whether it will implement a plan devised by his predecessor George W. Bush to install missile defence facilities in the Czech Republic and Poland which has infuriated Russia.

Moscow believes the missile shield is aimed against its territory but Washington has insisted it is designed to counter the threat posed by Iran.

Medvedev said in an interview with Italian media released Sunday that unlike the previous administration Obama was prepared to discuss the issue. "We are completely capable of finding a sensible outcome," he said.

"Russia is not against such defence systems. But they should not be aimed against a very prominent nuclear country like Russia. We think such decisions put us in a difficult situation."

Obama said in an interview with a Russian newspaper to be published Monday that such a defence shield was aimed at protecting the United States and Europe from Iran "and not against an attack from Russia."

"Such thinking is simply a legacy of the Cold War," he told the Novaya Gazeta, according to excerpts published by the ITAR-TASS news agency in Russian.

The shadow of the past was also underlined in Obama’s recent comments critical of what he said was Putin’s outdated approach.

By contrast, Obama said he had "a very good relationship" with the youthful Medvedev, prompting speculation he was seeking to divide Russia’s hitherto tight ruling tandem.

Obama’s interview with the opposition Novaya Gazeta — the newspaper of the murdered journalist and scathing Putin critic Anna Politkovskaya — will also be noted in Russian liberal circles.

Medvedev had earlier this year given an interview to the same newspaper, a move that some commentators said would have been unimaginable under the Putin presidency.

Obama will expect a smoother reception than on a 2005 visit to Russia when then senator and colleague Richard Lugar was detained for three hours at an airport in the Urals city of Perm.

His two-day visit will also see the US president meet Russian opposition leaders, civil society representatives and give a keynote address to a graduation ceremony at a top economics university.