Russia has for the first time signaled willingness to soften its opposition to controversial US plans for a missile defense shield in central Europe as top US officials met with Putin's successor in Moscow.
US plans to install missile defenses on European soil have sparked profound unease
On the second day of talks with top Russian officials in Moscow, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke of an upbeat mood during their meeting with President Vladimir Putin and his protege, president-elect Dmitry Medvedev, on Monday.
"We had a positive spirit yesterday.... We look forward to further work today, to having greater details so that perhaps we can strengthen our partnership and overcome some of our differences," Rice said.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia was "satisfied with the way our relations are developing" and that there was a will to inimise discord."
Gates predicted the two sides could conclude a deal on disputed US missile defence plans before Bush leaves office in January 2009.
Earlier on Monday, Putin said there was a real chance to make progress on stalled talks with the US over Washington's controversial plans to install a missile defense system on European soil.
Putin said he saw an opportunity to move relations with the US forward after he received what he called a "serious document" from US President George Bush.
Medvedev, left, has said he will continue with Putin's policies
"I recently had an opportunity to speak to the US president and I received his letter," Putin said. "It is a serious document which we have carefully analyzed. If we manage to agree on its main provisions, we will be able to say that our dialogue is progressing successfully."
Dimitry Medvedev, who won a landslide election earlier this month and is to succeed Putin as president, sounded a conciliatory note after his first talks with Gates and Rice.
"There are issue where we still have differences in positions," Medvedev said. "But we also have a common will and commitment to move ahead."
Russia critical of missile defense Washington announced in Jan 2007 that it wanted to install 10 missile interceptors in Poland and a radar base in the Czech Republic to cover US territory but also some European allies, and wanted it operational by 2013. The shield is aimed at countering attacks from "rogue states" such as Iran and North Korea.
Moscow has been highly critical of the US plans to place part of its missile defense system near Russia's European borders, specifically focusing on the proposed installation of 10 missile interceptors in Poland and tracking radar in the Czech Republic.
Russia argues that Iran does not have the long-range missiles necessary to pose any threat to Europe, let alone the continental United States, and is unlikely to develop that capacity any time soon. Russia's main concern is that the US shield would compromise its own nuclear deterrent and has warned it could target the Polish and Czech sites.
Europe uneasy about US plans
The dispute has pushed diplomatic relations between the US and Russia to a post-Cold War low and has sparked deep unease among European governments split between supporting US plans and the need to take seriously Russia's concerns about the missile defense system.
US plans for a missile shield in Europe have divided Merkel's coalition
In Germany, the row has exposed divisions in Chancellor Angela Merkel's left-right coalition. The center-left Social Democrats remain opposed to the missile defense system, warning it could spark a new arms race while Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats are largely in favor. Merkel has called for a debate on the plans within NATO and called for a united EU approach to the shield.
The plans have also raised concerns in Poland and the Czech Republic where some worry their countries would become targets for terrorists.
There are also concerns the shield project could be dropped in the event of a Democratic victory in November's US presidential election.
Russian political analyst Fyodor Lukyanov told news agency AFP he doubted Gates' statement that agreement on missile defense could be achieved under the Bush administration and said both sides were in a holding position dictated by domestic politics.
Bush is unlikely to change his position on missile defence in his final year, and Moscow will wait for a possible Democratic victory in US presidential elections in November in the hope of a change of position, Lukyanov said.
"The Russian side can expect the new administration to at least re-evaluate" the project. "Not that the Americans will cancel this
project but at least change some of the approaches," said Lukyanov, who edits the journal Russia in Global Affairs.
The topic of the US missile shield in Europe has also generated discussion among defense experts who say that its deployment would be a major shift towards a defensive strategy of deterrence in a new era of nuclear proliferation and rogue regimes.