President Vladimir Putin hosted on Thursday the most senior US delegation to visit Moscow since George W. Bush's election amid a visible shift in Russia's readiness to cooperate on missile defense.
The visit "proves that the agreements that we reached with Bush are being realized", Putin told a Kremlin meeting attended by US National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, US Commerce Secretary Don Evans and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill.
Rice later reported that she and Russian defense officials had agreed a specific timetable for future missile defense and disarmament talks.
Offering to turn over a new leaf in Moscow's at times chilly relations with Washington, Putin said the US team's visit should "add new meaning to our relations, without the problems that have lingered on from the past.
"It is important ... that the United States no longer views Russia as its enemy," Putin added, in reference to a Bush statement during the two leaders' historic summit in Ljubljana last month.
Earlier on Thursday, a top Moscow minister gave a cautiously receptive response to Rice's proposal to move beyond the 1972 anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty and construct a brand new nuclear defense architecture.
Following 40-minute talks with Rice, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said Moscow was willing to listen to Washington's arguments, while noting that such talks would take some time.
Security Council secretary Vladimir Rushailo for his part said "both sides are to begin, and are already beginning, consultation among experts" on strategic security issues.
Rice later reported that she had "very good" consultations with both men.
Moscow is facing the prospect of the United States' unilateral withdrawal from the ABM treaty, which bans Russia and the United States from building national missile defense systems.
Russia has warned that scrapping the ABM treaty could spark a new arms race reminiscent of the Cold War.
But while Moscow has threatened to stock up on nuclear warheads should Washington follow through on its own, Russia has recently adopted a more conciliatory tone, suggesting it is ready to strike a useful bargain.
"Without being antagonists, without being enemies, Russia and the United States are looking for ways to establish -- on a new and even more stable basis -- a system of international security, including the key question of strategic stability," Russia's defense minister said.
"We have many question for each other but both sides are prepared for serious, honest and constructive talks," said Ivanov after his meeting with Rice, which was held without any interpreters.
Washington argues that the ABM treaty is out of date now that the main threat comes from "rogue states" such as Iraq and North Korea.
On her arrival on Wednesday, Rice announced that Washington was intent on negotiating a completely new nuclear deterrence architecture that would suit Moscow and allow Washington to build its contested missile defense shield.
"President Bush has made it a high priority of our government to proceed with defensive technologies," Rice said upon her arrival to Moscow.
"But we do believe that we have a good and cooperative spirit with the Russian government, that the two presidents have developed a good relationship and we have the basis for cooperation (on the new threat from rogue states)", she added.
The meeting follows last week's Genoa summit between Bush and Putin at which the two unexpectedly agreed to link future negotiations over the ABM to mutual cuts in nuclear weapons.
Bush had previously refused to link the two, although Putin -- facing extreme cash shortages and an aging nuclear arsenal -- has pushed hard for deep cuts by both countries.
Putin on Monday warned against calling that agreement a "breakthrough" but most analysts now note that the two sides appear two have broken the ice on the issue of missile defense -- MOSCOW (AFP)
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