Lugar urges US-Russia cooperation before Bush goes

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WASHINGTON, Oct 9 (Reuters) The Bush administration should pursue cooperation with Russia on missile defense, arms control and non-proliferation in its waning months despite the many differences between Washington and Moscow, an influential US senator said.

Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's senior Republican, offered the advice as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates head to Moscow this week for so-called ''2+2'' talks with their Russian counterparts on Friday and Saturday.

''The visit provides the last, best opportunity to lay the foundation for bold initiatives,'' before US President George W Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin step down, Lugar said in a speech at the Brookings Institution think tank.

Lugar said the two countries -- which disagree on topics including how to rein in Iran's nuclear ambitions, European missile defense and independence for Kosovo -- have a ''narrow window of opportunity'' to make progress.

The most controversial issue ahead of the talks is the US plan to place 10 interceptors in Poland and radar in the Czech Republic as part of a shield designed to protect Europe from missile attacks by states such as Iran and North Korea.

Russia has said this would upset the strategic balance and pose a threat to its security. In July, Moscow proposed the two countries use a Russian-operated early warning radar in Azerbaijan as an alternative to the U.S. missile shield.

While acknowledging that missile defense ''is seen by many as a major source of the current malaise in the relationship,'' Lugar said the Russian proposal held promise.

''Sharing information gathered by US and NATO systems (with) Russia and possibly linking radar and early warning systems would be useful in ensuring transparency and reaffirming our cooperative approach,'' Lugar said yesterday.

The two should also consider creating jointly manned radar installations and exchanging early warning data, he added.

'COMPLICATED' RELATIONSHIP On arms control, Lugar questioned the Bush administration's plans to allow a landmark nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia to expire in 2009 and to replace it with a less formal agreement that eliminates strict verification requirements.

Russia has argued that the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which mandated deep nuclear weapons cuts, should not be extended but should be replaced with another legally binding treaty that makes further cuts in strategic forces.

Lugar also urged the administration to preserve some kind of legally binding verification regime, saying the US-Russian ''relationship is complicated enough without introducing greater elements of uncertainty into the nuclear relationship.'' On non-proliferation, Lugar made a host of recommendations, including that the two countries: -- wrap up an agreement under which U.S. officials can inspect Russia's Mayak storage facility designed to hold up to 100 tonnes of plutonium from dismantled Russian warheads; -- renew work on upgrading the safety and security at Russian nuclear warhead and material storage sites; -- revise and implement an existing agreement to dispose of 34 tonnes of weapons-grade plutonium on each side; -- explore how to apply the Nunn-Lugar program, created after the fall of the Soviet Union to help secure Soviet nuclear weapons and to prevent proliferation of nuclear materials or expertise, to North Korea; -- continue work to develop an international nuclear fuel bank that would ensure countries that abandon enrichment and reprocessing -- which can provide fuel for nuclear power plants or weapons -- could obtain nuclear reactor fuel.

REUTERS TB AS0459

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