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Obama Seeks To Soothe East European Security Fears

U.S. President Barack Obama hosted the leaders of 11 NATO members in central and eastern Europe after signing a nuclear arms reduction treaty in Prague with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

PRAGUE (Reuters) -- President Barack Obama has met with the leaders of NATO allies in central and eastern Europe to soothe fears that better U.S. relations with Russia might mean weaker security links with the former Soviet satellites.

Obama hosted a dinner for the 11 leaders in Prague after signing a nuclear arms reduction treaty April 8 with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev, a key part in his drive for disarmament and "resetting" relations with Moscow.

White House officials said Washington's relationships with Moscow and those with central and east European countries should not be viewed as a "zero-sum game".

"This notion that somehow if we work with Russia that's to the disadvantage of our allies, like the Czech Republic, that's absolutely absurd," Michael McFaul, a senior Russia adviser to Obama, said in the Czech capital.

Former Soviet bloc countries believe that a strong bond with the United States is vital for their security. But the U.S. rapprochement with Moscow and the Obama administration's decision last year to scrap plans to build elements of a missile defense shield in the Czech Republic and Poland have led to some suspicion that their links with Washington may be weakening.

All 11 nations invited to the dinner at the U.S. ambassador's residence joined NATO in the past decade.

The White House emphasized in a statement the positive side of warmer U.S. -Russian ties for the 11 countries, saying that the leaders "expressed their view that the improvement in relations between Washington and Moscow has reduced tensions and created new opportunities for them to improve their relations with Russia".

Under President George W. Bush, the United States asked Poland to host a battery of anti-missile rockets and the Czech Republic to become a site for a long-range radar system.

Washington said the shield was aimed at providing protection from countries such as Iran, but it was strongly opposed by Russia, which saw it as a security threat.

Czech President Vaclav Klaus said before the dinner that he trusted the U.S. assurances.

"President Obama wants -- that is why he invited our neighbors in central and eastern Europe -- to convince them that this (scrapping of the missile shield) was not any signal that America is forgetting about this part of the world," he said. "These are the exact sentences he said and I have no reason not to believe it."

Under a revamped plan, Obama's administration wants to deploy different missile interceptors in Romania and Bulgaria.

NATO has been urging alliance members to back a common missile defense shield and has called on them to agree on the plan at a summit in November, but France has raised doubts about raising funds for the system.

Obama said he would seek to cooperate with Russia on missile defense. Medvedev said disagreements remained with the United States over the issue but that he hoped a compromise could be reached.