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Rice in Russia for Missile Defense Talks

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice begins discussions in Moscow later Monday with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, aimed at smoothing over Russian objections and mistrust over Washington's missile defense plans in Europe. Tuesday, Rice is scheduled for discussions with President Vladimir Putin. VOA's Lisa McAdams reports from Moscow.

The major challenge Secretary Rice faces, heading into talks at the Kremlin, is Russia's still simmering anger at American plans to deploy an anti-missile defense shield in Poland, the Czech Republic and a third - as yet unnamed - nation in the Caucasus.

Washington says the system is needed to guard Europe, including Russia, against potential threats from so-called rogue states like Iran and North Korea.

Talks on the issue, late last week, between Russian and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) negotiators in Brussels failed to narrow the gap of disagreement. The chief of Russia's armed forces, General Yury Baluyevsky, says Russia wants assurances the planned U.S. deployment will not later be expanded further into Central and Eastern Europe. He also says the plans signal the start of a new arms race.

The director of the Heritage Foundation in Moscow, Yevgeni Volk, predicts Rice will encounter pretty much the same message during her talks this week in Russia.

"The Russian side does not believe American statements that these ballistic missile facilities will not be directed against Russia, but are a safeguard against rogue nations which seek nuclear weapons and missile technology to attack the United States and their allies," he said. "So, I believe both sides can hardly find common ground, because the perceptions of ballistic missiles in Europe are quite different."

Volk says Europeans view the missiles as being part of an offensive, rather than defensive, arsenal. As such, he predicts the Russian leadership's comments on the matter will remain - as he says - bellicose.

Another difficult point of discussion awaiting Ms. Rice is Moscow's opposition to a draft resolution before the United Nations Security Council in New York, providing for supervised independence for Kosovo.

Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin has said Russian diplomats will not touch (determine a position on) the draft, until Rice's visit to Moscow is finished. Volk says, unless Rice and her Russian counterparts make some progress on this issue, he believes a Russian veto at the Security Council will be inevitable.

"If Kosovo becomes independent, it will mean a serious defeat for Russian diplomacy, for Russian foreign policy, and indeed it could be interpreted widely as, once again, a weakness of Russia in international relations, which the Kremlin elite cannot admit," Volk said.

Secretary Rice's trip is her first extended visit with Russian leaders since President Putin shocked the West with a harsh critique of American policies in a February speech in Munich. During the speech, Mr. Putin accused the United States of making the world a more dangerous place.

In the days leading up to her visit, Rice delivered strong criticism, in kind. She told a Senate committee Washington remains wary of Putin's leadership. She says that unease is shared by others around the world, including leaders in Europe, who are concerned about the internal course Russia has taken under President Putin.

Rice says democratic rollbacks, or losses, of previous gains made in Russia's legislature, free media and independent judiciary are of particular concern. She says the concentration of power in the Kremlin is - as she puts it - "troubling."