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US, Russian defense chiefs promote deeper ties

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his Russian counterpart Anatoly Serdyukov vowed to expand military cooperation on Wednesday, in a sign of improving relations between Moscow and Washington.

In the first visit to the Pentagon by a Russian defense minister in five years, Serdyukov was greeted with military pomp before heading into a full day of talks with Gates.

The high-profile visit carried important symbolism and reflected a much-touted “reset” of relations between the former Cold War foes over the past year, with the two sides forging common ground on the war in Afghanistan, arms control and Iran’s nuclear program.

Gates and Serdyukov signed two documents designed to deepen military ties, including a memorandum on cooperation — replacing an outdated 1993 accord — and a plan to form a defense working group that will meet every year.

The memorandum “underscores that defense cooperation is an important element strengthening the wider US-Russian relationship, especially now when our two countries confront many similar security threats and challenges,” Gates said at the signing ceremony.

Serdyukov said he hoped his visit “will provide a very powerful impetus to the development of the relationship between our nations.”

President Barack Obama’s administration needs Moscow’s permission to allow the US military and NATO to move troops and supplies across Russian territory for the war in Afghanistan.

The deal has eased the pressure on supply routes through restive areas in Pakistan, and Gates was expected to express appreciation for Russia’s assistance, officials said.

The US has also struck deals with countries across Central Asia to allow access to air fields and supply lines for the mission in Afghanistan, where nearly 100,000 US troops are deployed.

The Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, citing defense ministry sources, said on Wednesday the Kremlin expected Serdyukov to discuss the “division of spheres of influence” in central Asia and the south Caucasus during his visit.

“In particular, Moscow is no longer against a wider presence of NATO military contingents in the post-Soviet space,” the report said.

Serdyukov told reporters the sensitive issue of missile defense was discussed, but gave no indication if Moscow might be ready to participate in a US-led system designed to thwart a possible ballistic missile attack from Iran.

US officials have invited Russia to join in the network of anti-missile radars and interceptors, suggesting that Moscow could cooperate in the use of a radar site in Azerbaijan.

Gates and Serdyukov were due to hold three formal meetings as well as a working dinner on a US Navy vessel on the Potomac river, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said.

With the Pentagon rolling out the red carpet for Serdyukov, analysts said the visit demonstrated the two governments were serious about strengthening ties.

“As a signal of the ‘reset,’ having the defense ministers meet is huge,” said Olga Oliker, senior international policy analyst at the Rand Corporation think tank.

“Historically this is how countries show they trust each other,” with military exercises and high-level talks, Oliker told AFP.

On the eve of the visit, Gates — a former CIA director who spent much of his career battling the Soviets — described Russia as a partner in an interview with the Russian agency Interfax.

“I don’t see Russia as a threat,” Gates said.

“We’re partners in some areas and competitors in others. But on important things, we are cooperating,” he said.

Gates saw “a much greater opportunity for military exercises” and said the administration wanted to buy Russian MI-17 helicopters for Afghan security forces, despite some opposition from US industry.

The Pentagon chief was expected to brief Serdyukov on efforts persuade the US Senate to ratify the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).

The START deal has bolstered cooperation on national security issues, paving the way for Moscow to support tough UN sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, US officials said.