Gates to visit Russia next week: Pentagon

18th March 2011, Comments 0 comments

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates departs for Russia on Saturday for talks expected to touch on turmoil in the Middle East, the Afghanistan war and plans for missile defense, officials said.

The secretary was going ahead with the three-day visit even as the US military prepares for possible air strikes in Libya and deploys forces to help with Japan's earthquake and tsunami.

"There's no consideration being given to delaying this trip," his press secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters.

The Pentagon chief would be able to participate in White House deliberations as he was accompanied by senior aides and would be travelling in an aircraft with sophisticated communications links, he said.

"He obviously flies in the aircraft he flies in with the staff he has, so that he can carry out his responsibilities no matter where he is in the world," he said.

With Gates vowing to step down later this year, the visit will mark his last tour of Russia as defense chief, Morrell said.

A former CIA director who spent years tracking the former Soviet Union, Gates was due to visit cultural landmarks in Saint Petersburg and address junior military officers on Sunday and Monday before meeting his Russian counterpart, Russian counterpart, Anatoly Serdyukov, and President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow on Tuesday.

While previous trips to Russia had been dominated by disputes over a planned US missile defense shield in Europe, this visit would cover a broader range of issues and reflected deepening military ties between the two countries, officials said.

Missile defense is "not the driver for this visit" though "it will clearly be the subject of considerable conversation," Morrell said.

Since a "reset" of US-Russia relations launched after President Barack Obama took office in 2009, Moscow has agreed a nuclear arms control deal, shown more willingness to back the US stance on Iran and allowed NATO access to land and air routes through Russian territory to supply troops in the Afghanistan war.

"We've seen a broader spirit of cooperation on a range of geo-political issues since the reset in 2009," said a senior defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Russia's decision last year to cancel the sale of S-300 ground-to-air missiles to Iran "sent a very strong message to Iran that the international community is united," the official said.

Moscow also chose to abstain on Thursday's UN Security Council vote backing possible military action in Libya, which the official called "a positive step" and another example of better US-Russia relations.

Gates was expected to discuss how Russia could expand its assistance for the war effort in Afghanistan, including supplying Afghan forces with Mi-17 helicopters.

© 2011 AFP

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