Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates are preparing to meet with Russian officials in Moscow to discuss a U.S. missile-defense plan for Europe. Colin Mc McCullough reports for VOA news in Moscow that the Americans will meet with Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin and president-elect Dmitry Medvedev during the next two days in an effort to ease tensions.

Forty minutes. That is how long President Vladimir Putin kept Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates waiting during their previous visit to Moscow last October. Their agenda then, as now, was a discussion of America's missile-defense system plans. But this time, Rice says that things will be different.

At a press conference Friday during a Latin American trip, she said the State Department has had good private discussions with the Russians. She added that there is enough interest to head out again and see if progress can be made.

The March 17 and 18 meetings with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov will address the U.S. plan to build missile-defense facilities in Europe. Plans call for up to 10 interceptors in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic.

Last month, Mr. Putin said the U.S. plan will eliminate Russia's strategic deterrent, and force a new global arms race between the two nations - one that he says could put a tremendous strain on the country's economy.

America has responded by saying that the missile-defense system is not intended to defend against a Russian arsenal, but against a potential attack from Iran or a rogue threat.

Russia has offered alternative plans, including one to build a joint Russian-American missile defense radar site in Azerbaijan. American officials have been cool to this idea.

Whether the U.S. system would pose any threat to Russia remains in dispute.

Independent Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer says many experts in Russia do not consider the proposal a threat to Russia's nuclear arsenal.

He says there is no threat from 10 interceptors in Poland. He adds that if such missiles were intended to intercept against Russia, it would be better to station them in Ireland or North Dakota, where they could intercept Russian missiles more effectively.

The possibility remains of a joint system designed to protect Russia as well as Europe and the United States from a missile attack. As discussions continue, both sides realize they will have new presidents in office within one year. This prompts Felgenhauer to predict that nothing significant will come out of this week's two-plus-two talks.

U.S.-Russian relations during President Putin's two terms in office were marked by a tension over issues ranging from Kosovo's independence to Iran's nuclear program.

State Department spokesman Scott McCormack said Secretaries Rice and Gates could extend the trip, should there be signs of potential progress. Other topics on their agenda include nonproliferation and counterterrorism.

The meetings take place before President Bush's scheduled visit to Ukraine for discussion of possible NATO membership for the former Soviet republic. This topic has also been another source of U.S.-Russian tensions and is expected to be on the Rice-Gates agenda this week.