The two top U.S. politicians held a breakfast meeting with opposition leaders Grigory Yavlinsky, who heads the Yabloko party, and Vladimir Ryzhkov, an independent parliamentarian who lost his seat in elections last year.
The U.S. officials used the opportunity to gauge the current political climate in Russia, where a recent presidential election that saw a landslide victory for President Vladimir Putin’s chosen successor, Dmitry Medvedev, was widely criticized in the West.
But the two stopped short of speaking to the Kremlin’s harshest critics -- former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, and chess-grandmaster-turned-opposition-activist Garry Kasparov -- both of whom were barred from running in last month’s vote.
Later, Gates and Rice held talks with their Russian counterparts -- Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
The talks were expected to focus on missile defense and nonproliferation. Negotiations over a planned U.S. defense system in Central Europe have reached a deadlock in recent months. Russia fiercely opposes U.S. plans to build parts of a missile-defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic to monitor unfriendly nations, including Iran and North Korea.
But with Medvedev set to step into President Putin’s shoes in May, and a new president due to be elected in Washington later this year, talks on long-term missile defense between the two countries are purely symbolic at this stage, says Yevgeny Volk, director of the Moscow office of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.
"Of course, the main purpose of this visit was just to demonstrate to the international community, to the national leaders in both countries, that the dialogue is continuing, that both sides are interested in maintaining the negotiations process to prevent the degradation of their mutual relationship, and to provide certain prospects for the improvement of Russian-American relations in the future," Volk says.
According to protocol, the current round of negotiations should have been held in Washington -- last year the defense and foreign ministers also met in Moscow. But it’s thought holding the talks in Moscow for a second time could give Medvedev, a long-term Putin ally, an opportunity to demonstrate his negotiating skills on friendly territory.
Volk says Rice and Gates are no doubt very keen to get to know the man who is to lead Russia for the next four years.
"One of the purposes of their visit, of course, was to get in touch with Medvedev, to understand whether there are any differences between him and Putin. Because, if you remember, quite recently -- about two weeks ago -- he clearly stated that he is going to shape Russian foreign policy, and of course it’s a clear signal that he is not going to be just a puppet, he really wants to become an influential president," Volk says.
On March 17, Gates and Rice held talks with both Medvedev and Putin, who has indicated he will become prime minister after his successor is inaugurated as president in May.
Volk says there was a noticeable difference in approach between the two Russian officials. Medvedev, a soft-spoken lawyer, played up the desire of both sides to reach an agreement. Putin, by contrast, has chosen to emphasize the two countries’ differences, in what some observers have described as a return to the rhetoric of the Cold War era.
Nevertheless, says Volk, the outcome is likely to remain the same.