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Gates, Russian minister meet after military relations hit 'low point'

By Larry Shaughnessy, CNN Pentagon Producer
  • Defense Secretary Gates meets with his Russian counterpart
  • Minister of Defense Anatoliy Serdyukov and Gates discussed reforming their militaries
  • Relations between the two militaries are rebuilding from a "low point"
  • That came after Russia and the former Soviet republic of Georgia clashed in 2008

Washington (CNN) -- Meeting for the first time since relations hit what an official called a "low point" after Russia clashed with the former Soviet republic of Georgia, the heads of the world's two most powerful militaries had "very productive" meetings covering a wide range of topics Wednesday.

"It was a good time to renew the defense dialogue at the ministerial level," said a senior defense official with knowledge of talks between U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and his Russian counterpart, Minister of Defense Anatoliy Serdyukov.

The issue that brought the two together and took up much of their time was reform of their respective departments.

"We are both working hard to achieve sweeping, sometimes painful, but very necessary reforms in our respective militaries," Gates said after nearly four hours of meetings with Serdyukov.

Gates has for months been working to rejigger the U.S. defense budget to cover the ongoing costs of the war in Afghanistan and related matters, while at the same time reducing the Defense Department's attachment to cold-war era spending priorities.

Serdyukov has been trying to reform Russia's ministry of defense, including "retiring" more than 200,000 officers.

"I would also like to say that the organizations, the reforms that are under way both in the United States and in Russia -- the military reforms -- are sometimes very painful," Serdyukov said. "They are very much necessary in order to create an effective armies of the 21st century."

The Pentagon put a very upbeat spin on the meetings -- a big change from two years ago when relations between Russian and U.S. militaries hit a valley because of the war between Russia and Georgia over separatist territories in the Caucuses.

"The whole relationship hit a low point in the wake of the Georgia war, so we've been in the process of rebuilding," according to the senior defense official.

In August of 2008, Georgia launched a campaign against South Ossetia, a Russian-backed separatist territory. The following day, Russian tanks, troops and armored vehicles poured into South Ossetia and another breakaway Georgian territory, Abkhazia, advancing into Georgian cities outside the rebel regions. The week-long war has led to a contentious relationship between Russia and Georgia -- both parts of the former Soviet Union -- ever since.

"Since 2008, the end of the conflict, there have not been any international monitors or observers in Abkhazia or South Ossetia even though EU -- the European Union -- still has a monitoring mission in Georgia proper, so we've long felt that it (Wednesday's meeting) would contribute to stability, confidence-building, (and) prevention of unforeseen incidents escalating out of control," the senior defense official said.

The two leaders also discussed the new START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) agreement, which is being discussed in the Senate this week. "The secretary briefed Minister Serdyukov on the state-of-play of new START ratification and highlighted the all-out efforts we're making to bring the treaty into force over the coming weeks," the official said.

On the issue of missile defense, the two sides remain at odds. ""The Russians continue to have concerns about missile defense, but Mr. Serdyukov indicated an interest in further discussions," the official said.

Gates and Serdyukov also discussed Iran, but no progress was made in developing a unified stance against Iran's attempts to become a nuclear power.

As for Afghanistan, Gates thanked the Russian for allowing more than 20,000 containers of materials of U.S. military equipment to be shipped to Afghanistan via the Russian rail network as well as the air transit. There was also some discussion of allowing more kinds of U.S. military equipment to be shipped via Russia's railroads, including lethal weapons. Right now only non-lethal supplies can be shipped on Russian railroads.

Following the afternoon meetings, Gates and Serdyukov signed two agreements aimed at strengthening U.S./Russian military relations in the future. They were expected to wrap up their day's discussions during dinner on board a Navy vessel on the Potomac River.