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US, Russian defense chiefs talk military cooperation

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Wednesday hosted his Russian counterpart Anatoly Serdyukov in a sign of expanding military cooperation and improving relations between the former Cold War foes.

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.

US officials and analysts said the meeting confirmed a much-touted “reset” of relations with Moscow was taking root, with the two sides forging common ground on a range of issues, including the war in Afghanistan, arms control and Iran’s nuclear program.

“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.

Gates and Serdyukov planned to sign two documents on defense cooperation, including a memorandum replacing an outdated 1993 accord, and to hold three formal meetings as well as a working dinner on US Navy vessel on the Potomac river, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said.

The defense chiefs would be meeting for at least five hours, “which is an unusually long amount of time to devote to any visiting dignitary,” Morrell told reporters.

President Barack Obama’s administration is particularly grateful to Moscow for allowing 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, Morrell said.

A Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, citing defense ministry sources, said on Wednesday the Kremlin had tasked Serdyukov with building up military ties between Moscow and Washington.

“In particular, Moscow is no longer against a wider presence of NATO military contingents in the post-Soviet space,” the report said, adding Serdyukov would likely discuss the “division of spheres of influence” in central Asia and the south Caucasus.

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 was interested in buying Russian MI-17 helicopters for Afghan security forces.

Reflecting the growing defense cooperation, US and Russian pilots recently held a joint exercise over North America to prepare for a possible hijacking of a commercial airliner.

Gates and Serdyukov were expected to discuss the sensitive subject of missile defense as well as efforts to persuade the US Senate to ratify the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).

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

Officials said both men also would be sharing their experiences in trying to cut costs and reform their military bureaucracies.

“These are both men who are trying to streamline and make sense of cumbersome defense bureaucracies. They certainly have that in common,” Oliker said.