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Obama heads to Russia

MOSCOW, Jul 6 – US President Barack Obama arrives in Russia on Monday to rebuild ties that plunged to a Cold War low last year while also seeking cooperation on Afghanistan and progress on a key nuclear arms treaty.

Obama is scheduled to arrive in Moscow at 0920 GMT to hold several hours of meetings with President Dmitry Medvedev. The two leaders are to conduct a press conference in the evening.

His shorter breakfast encounter with Vladimir Putin on Tuesday could be chilly after the US leader recently remarked that the prime minister remained stuck in the past.

Both sides have vowed to press the "reset button" after Russia’s war with Georgia last year capped a series of diplomatic rows. But potential tensions remain, especially on missile defence.

"The summit will be billed as a success," said Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Centre in Moscow.

"The question is which way from the summit, whether the summit leads to a relationship that will gradually undo the real problems."

Russian officials have said Medvedev and Obama will sign a deal allowing the United States to transport military supplies for operations in Afghanistan across Russian territory.

Previously, Washington has only been allowed by Moscow to transport non-lethal supplies by rail. The new deal should allow the United States to transport military supplies across Russia by air.

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The two countries are also set to sign a declaration establishing the framework to renew the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), a Cold War-era deal that expires in early December.

"There certainly won’t be an agreement on the end deal… but I think you will see an announcement that indicates some progress toward reaching that objective," White House arms control specialist Gary Samore said Sunday, referring to a deal by year’s end.

But the Interfax news agency quoted a high-ranking Russian foreign ministry source as saying officials from the two sides have yet to agree the wording of the document, with time running out ahead of Obama’s arrival.

The Obama administration has yet to say whether it will implement a plan devised by his predecessor George W. Bush to install missile defence facilities in the Czech Republic and Poland that has infuriated Russia.

Moscow says the missile shield is aimed against its territory, a claim Obama vehemently denied, telling a Russian newspaper the plan was aimed at protecting the United States and Europe from Iran "and not against an attack from Russia."

Obama told the Novaya Gazeta that "such thinking is simply a legacy of the Cold War," according to excerpts released by the ITAR-TASS news agency in Russian.

Medvedev said that unlike the previous administration, Obama was prepared to discuss the issue.

"We are completely capable of finding a sensible outcome," he told Italian media in an interview released Sunday.

"Russia is not against such defence systems. But they should not be aimed against a very prominent nuclear country like Russia."

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Obama’s two-day visit will also see the US president meet Russian opposition leaders, civil society representatives and give a keynote address to a graduation ceremony at a top economics university.

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