- The Washington Times - Friday, May 23, 2003

A senior Russian official yesterday expressed “cautious optimism” that Moscow and Washington will be able to collaborate on a defensive missile shield that the Kremlin once violently opposed.

“It is still too early to talk about the prospects for cooperation, but I can take the risk of expressing very cautious optimism in this regard,” said the senior Kremlin official, who briefed reporters on background yesterday at the Russian Embassy here after meetings with President Bush and senior administration officials this week.

The official said Russian specialists had put several concrete proposals for missile defense cooperation to their American counterparts, and “we are hoping for a U.S. response very soon.”

The new Russian flexibility on missile defense is a major breakthrough for the U.S. administration, which had pushed the defensive shield in the face of widespread international opposition.

The Washington Times reported Wednesday that the White House has issued a new national security policy directive affirming the U.S. intention to push for a global missile defense system.

Sharp differences over the war in Iraq strained U.S.-Russian relations in recent months, but the Russian official was upbeat after his talks that the rift would not prove lasting.

“The crisis in Russian-American relations — and the broader crisis in international relations — is over,” he said.

Russia, which had extensive political and economic ties to the regime of Saddam Hussein, joined with France in opposing the U.S.-led military campaign, and President Vladimir Putin has mocked the failure so far of U.S. and British forces to find stocks of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But both sides have moved to heal the breach with remarkable speed.

The Russian official, the most senior Kremlin official to visit Washington since the end of the fighting in Iraq, delivered a statement from Mr. Putin to Mr. Bush saying Moscow was “prepared to develop cooperation with the United States in all spheres.”

“There are many more things that unite us than questions that bring us apart,” said Mr. Putin’s message, which was released to Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency.

After initially opposing a U.S.-backed resolution to the U.N. Security Council lifting economic sanctions on Iraq, Russia yesterday voted in favor of an amended resolution, having secured more guarantees for its existing oil contracts and other interests in post-Saddam Iraq.

After considerable delay, the lower house of the Russian parliament last week approved a nuclear arms reduction treaty first proposed by Mr. Bush requiring both sides to slash their offensive nuclear stockpiles by two-thirds.

The Russian official met with Mr. Bush, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other senior administration officials during his three-day Washington visit. Mr. Putin will host Mr. Bush in St. Petersburg in June, immediately before the Group of Eight summit in Evian, France.

Moscow’s cooperation in the Pentagon’s missile defense plan is conditioned on U.S. promises that the American national missile defense plan would not be targeted at Russia, that the program not lead to an arms race in space, and that there would be “full transparency” between the two capitals as the programs moved ahead.

The Russian official showed little flexibility on Moscow’s nuclear ties to Iran, a subject of sharp criticism by the Bush administration.

The official rejected what he called a “widely accepted myth” that Russian assistance in building a nuclear power plant for Iran near the city of Bushehr could help Tehran develop nuclear weapons, saying extensive bilateral and international safeguards were in place.

“Take my word for it, that’s wrong,” he said.

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