US and Russian defense chiefs commiserated about “painful” military reforms and signed accords on Wednesday stepping up dialogue, gestures that aimed to show improving ties between the former Cold War foes.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov also discussed thorny issues during their series of talks, including US plans for a missile defense system in Europe and Russia’s ceasefire with Georgia. There were no breakthroughs on those issues.
However, the talks were portrayed positively by both men, who were to dine together on Wednesday evening on a US Navy barge in the Potomac River — capping off more than five hours of meetings in a single day, an unusual amount of Gates’ time for any foreign dignitary, aides say.
“I do hope that my visit to the United States will provide a very powerful impetus to the development of relations between our two nations,” Serdyukov told reporters.
Gates said the accords they signed would ensure more frequent meetings between the two defense chiefs — at least one a year — and pave the way for more joint programs, exchanges and exercises between the two nations’ militaries.
Ties between the US and Russia have been slowly recovering since tensions over Russia’s 2008 war with the pro-Western former Soviet republic of Georgia. US President Barack Obama took office last year seeking to “reset” relations.
Proponents say Obama’s efforts helped win Russian support for sanctions on Iran as well as on military supply routes for the Afghan War. It also yielded a new US-Russian arms reduction treaty, which faces an uncertain path to approval in the full US Senate.
A key Senate committee was expected yesterday to approve the treaty, which commits Russia and the US to reduce deployed nuclear warheads by about 30 percent. However, some Republicans are putting up a fight, and a full Senate vote is not expected until after November congressional elections.
A senior US defense official, briefing reporters after the talks, said Russia’s lower house of parliament, the Duma, was awaiting US action before pursuing ratification further.
“They’ve had some preliminary hearings, but decided they’re going to let the Senate go first,” the official said.
Gates and Serdyukov both used the word “painful” to describe reforms they are pursuing in their militaries, belt-tightening that has defense industry executives and military commanders girding for leaner times, globally.
In the US, Gates has announced controversial plans to shut down an entire military command and ax at least 50 officers and 150 senior civilian executive posts, efforts meant to help save US$100 billion over five years.
Serdyukov, who analysts say is unpopular among much of the military, is pursuing far more dramatic cuts in the number of Russian officers and the size of Russia’s armed forces.
“He and I face similar leadership challenges,” Gates told reporters, with Serdyukov sitting beside him. “We are both working hard to achieve sweeping, sometimes painful, but very necessary reforms in our respective militaries.”
Analysts say the amount of time Gates set aside for his Russian counterpart was a message in itself. Serdyukov is the first Russian defense minister to set foot in the Pentagon in more than five years.