Rice, Gates Head to Russia to Plug Missile Defense

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates go to Russia on Friday to discuss U.S. plans to build part of its missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. Russia has taken strong exception to the plan, and its military says it will regard the sites as potential targets for Russian missiles. Rice and Gates are expected to repeat earlier assurances by the U.S. that the missile system is not intended to threaten Russia, but as protection from attack by countries such as Iran. Moscow and Washington, however, also have deep divisions about how to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions. The talks are expected to cover that issue as well.

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is a Russian speaker and a specialist in Soviet-era foreign and defense policy. So when she lands in Moscow tomorrow, she will, in a way, be returning to her academic roots. Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates are meeting their Russian counterparts for talks that will focus on strategic issues such as arms control and missile defense. Rice is also planning to meet human rights activists.

And as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, some Russian opposition figures are wondering what happened to the Bush administration's freedom agenda.

MICHELE KELEMEN: On the eve of the secretary's trip, Chess champion turned Kremlin critic Garry Kasparov was on Capitol Hill, painting a funny yet bleak picture of Russian politics.

GARRY KASPAROV: We, in Russia, already have two-party system. We have an oil party and a gas party.

KELEMEN: On a more serious note, he was angry with the response in Washington and in capitols in Europe to Vladimir Putin's most recent suggestion, that he might try to become Russia's next prime minister, a way to stay in power after his second presidential term ends.

KASPAROV: Maybe I miss something. But since Putin made this, some say, sensational announcement, I didn't hear a single statement. Right here in D.C., there was a clerk from State Department making a statement. But I think this kind of change in Russia deserve the attention from a much higher office.

KELEMEN: Kasparov is running for president though he has no expectation of winning. He sees Putin as a problem for the U.S., not a friend. A top State Department official who has been laying the groundwork for Rice's trip acknowledges there are problems in the relationship with Moscow. But Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried sees no point in lecturing Russia.

DANIEL FRIED: Russia's fate is going to be decided by Russians. But it is - the United States has a great interest in Russia's future. We do speak out about this. We make our views known.

KELEMEN: Most analysts, and even officials, agree the U.S. has little leverage with Putin when it comes to democracy.

Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana says this is a period of considerable frustration and disappointment in U.S.-Russian relations. He used the speech at the Brookings Institution this week to call on the Bush administration to get to work on areas where the U.S. and Russia need each other.

RICHARD LUGAR: To many, it will seem counterintuitive to make major policy pushes in the final months of a presidency. But the strategic choices legitimized by Presidents Bush and Putin will shape the behavior and policies of successors for years to come.

KELEMEN: Lugar went through a long list of issues that have to be dealt with. The U.S. and Russia don't agree on what should follow the strategic arms reduction treaty, or START, which expires in 2009. Russia wants a legally binding agreement. The U.S. is leery of that. Russia also opposes the Bush administration's plans to put missiles in Poland and radar in the Czech Republic for a U.S. missile defense program. Lugar said Washington should cooperate with Moscow on this. Assistant Secretary of State Fried is trying to figure out how.

FRIED: If they're part of the system, they can be much more confident that it is not directed against them.

KELEMEN: U.S. officials argued that they want the missile defense system to counter threats from countries like Iran. And Iran's nuclear ambitions will be another thorny issue on the agenda for the meetings in Moscow. Secretaries Rice and Gates are expected to try to encourage Putin to step up the pressure in Iran. But they're likely to be disappointed. The Kremlin leader is planning to go to Tehran soon after the Americans leave.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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