Moscow, March 22 (RFE/RL) - U.S. officials say they now have more shared interests with Russia than areas of separation.
U.S. State Department Spokesman Nicholas Burns told reporters Thursday that relations have changed: "We agree on more issues than we disagree," he said.
His words will be put to the test today and tomorrow (Saturday) in the first formal bi-lateral meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeniy Primakov.
Burns says that in two days of talks they plan to cover a comprehensive agenda, ranging from arms control and disarmament issues to military cooperation, and an exchange of views on the conflicts in Chechnya, Nagorno-Karabakh and Bosnia.
Primakov, and Christopher first met briefly in Helsinki in early February to get acquainted after Primakov replaced Andrei Kozyrev as Russia's foreign minister. They met a second time last week in the Middle East during a hastily convened international summit on terrorism, following suicide bombings in Israel.
Burns says "international terrorism has become a big issue" and another area of mutual interest and cooperation in U.S.-Russia relations, that will be discussed over the next two days.
U.S. officials were initially wary when Primakov - the former Pravda correspondent, Arab expert and spymaster - became Russia's top diplomat. But Burns says Primakov and Christopher have exchanged letters and telephone calls and developed in a short period of time what Burns described as "a very strong relationship." Burns says Christopher "feels he is off to a good start with Primakov" and that "U.S.-Russian relations are on a solid footing."
The U.S.-Russia "ministerials" as they are called, are held about twice a year and have developed a certain format and protocol that has rarely varied in recent years.
Christopher will get to see President Boris Yeltsin in the Kremlin today and next time Primakov comes to Washington to meet Christopher, he is likely to be received at the White House by president Bill Clinton.
After the talks with Yeltsin, the full U.S. and Russian delegations, including experts and other officials, will begin discussions and continue through a working lunch.
At some point during the day, Primakov and Christopher are expected to have a press conference and tell reporters of their progress in the carefully couched language of officialdom. Great news is not expected.
Much of the talks will be devoted to preparations for a U.S.-Russia summit next month, and for an international summit of the G-7 group of wealthy nations on nuclear safety, to be hosted by Russia in April.
Some progress is expected on disarmament issues. But analysts say the results are not likely to be announced now, but saved for the summit meetings next month.
Regarding Bosnia, U.S. officials will discuss with the Russian side results of negotiations with Balkan leaders in Geneva this week, and prepare for a meeting of Balkan foreign ministers and the five-nation Contact Group Saturday. Russia is hosting the meeting for the first time.
The two sides will also review NATO peace-keeping operations in Bosnia. U.S. officials have been stressing all week that American and Russian soldiers get on well together, and that their cooperation could serve as a model for the future, as well as an impetus to develop closer ties between Russia and NATO.
Christopher hammered home this theme in a speech delivered in Prague Wednesday on NATO and European security. He stressed that Russia must be part of Europe's new post-cold-war security structure, and the best opportunity to do that, he said, is through the NATO "Partnership for Peace" program.
Burns made the point again yesterday, saying "the U.S. wants to have a strong Nato-Russian relationship," and that "Russia is fundamental to Europe's stability and must be included." Burns "the U.S. believes very strongly that Russia is part of the solution...for a unified, peaceful, stable Europe."
U.S. officials hope they may thus overcome Russia's firm opposition to NATO expansion, and dispel any feelings in the Kremlin that Russia is being left out in the cold, and new lines of division are being drawn in Europe.
NATO Secretary General Javier Solana has had talks with Yeltsin and Primakov about NATO expansion and was reported as saying yesterday that Russia's opposition remains firm. Solana briefed Christopher on his talks last night.
Regarding the suffering in Chechnya, Burns says the U.S. wants to hear about Yeltsin's new peace plan, agreed last week with his Security Council. No details of the plan have yet been revealed.
Burns had little encouraging to say about Nagorno-Karabakh, the Azerbaijani enclave of largely ethnic Armenians that has been the subject of more than six years of fighting and bloodshed.
Burns says "it is an enormous problem. U.S. officials say the burden of negotiations has now moved away from the "Organization for security and cooperation in Europe," and is being conducted chiefly by the U.S. and Russia in a joint effort.
Burns says Russia is playing a constructive role, and, with the U.S., is trying to get the parties to negotiate with one another.
This month, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott travelled to Baku and Erevan to try and invigorate the peace process. But Burns says "no immediate progress could be reported." He says, however, that the U.S. and Russia will continue the peace effort and that this is another area in which they share common goals.
Also today, Christopher will continue a long-standing tradition of reaching out to a broad spectrum of Russia's political community. More than a dozen people have been invited to meet Christopher at Spaso House, the U.S. ambassador's residence. Burns says the group includes federal assembly deputies, as well as leaders of political parties, and candidates campaigning for russia's june presidential election.
Communist party leader Gennady Zyuganov has been invited. But Burns says Vladimir Zhirinovsky is not on the guest list, and neither is former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.