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Gates Rejects Russian Slap at Libya Air Strikes, Predicts Easing

Robert Gates and Anatoly SerdyukovMarch 23 (Bloomberg) -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates rejected Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's criticism of a U.S.-led coalition's air strikes on the forces of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, saying military action will ease in the coming days. "The coalition is going to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties, and most of the targets are air defense targets isolated from populated areas," Gates said in remarks alongside Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov after their meeting in Moscow yesterday. "I also told Minister Serdyukov that I thought the significant military fighting that has been going on should recede in the next few days."

The visit, which was to have focused on missile defense cooperation and the next level of U.S.-Russia defense relations, was partly hijacked by Putin's comments the previous day. Putin said the United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the Libya strikes and resulting allied offensive amounted to a "medieval call for a crusade."

The Libya campaign, as a result, figured prominently in talks Gates held with Serdyukov and a meeting of almost an hour later in the day with President Dmitry Medvedev at a dacha on the outskirts of Moscow, said Geoff Morrell, Gates's spokesman, who is traveling with him.

Gates found a measure of support with Serdyukov and Medvedev, who had dismissed Putin's comments publicly as "unacceptable." Serdyukov said Qaddafi's violence against Libyan civilians should stop.

Civilian Casualties

Medvedev expressed concerns to Gates over reports circulating in Russia about civilian casualties in Libya, according to a U.S. defense official who was familiar with the meeting and briefed reporters on condition of anonymity. Still, the Russian president stood by his government's decision not to veto the UN resolution, which it could have done as a permanent Security Council member, the official said.

Still, civilian deaths in Libya "shouldn't have been allowed," Serdyukov told the assembled reporters as Gates sat next to him in a guest house at the Defense Ministry.

"We urge all belligerent parties to do their best to stop the violence," Serdyukov said. "We believe that only a cease- fire and a dialogue between the belligerent parties would be the surest way to" ensure the security of civilians.

Gates said allied strikes against Qaddafi's forces are consistent with the UN resolution that authorized them for protecting civilians.

Russia's Abstention

Allied forces expanded their air campaign over Libya to thwart fighters loyal to Qaddafi and enable rebels to regain control of cities. Russia joined four members of the Security Council in abstaining from last week's vote that authorized the strikes, action intended to limit civilian casualties from the conflict.

Medvedev defended Russia's decision to abstain on the resolution, saying the agreement "broadly" reflected the country's position.

Gates swiped back at the talk of civilian casualties, even as he complimented Serdyukov's balancing act between Putin and Medvedev.

"He threaded the needle pretty well between them," Gates told reporters traveling with him after the meeting. "It sounded to me like his comments were closer to President Medvedev" rather than Putin.

Gates said he's "a little curious, frankly, about the tone that has been taken." He said "the vast majority" of civilian casualties have come at the hands of Qaddafi's forces.

'Outright Lies'

"We've been very careful about this," he said. "It's almost as though some people here are taking at face value Qaddafi's claims about the number of civilian casualties, which as far as I'm concerned are just outright lies."

The turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa also spilled over into discussion of a topic that had been on the agenda all along -- missile defense. The U.S. has devised a Europe-based system of radar and interceptor rockets that can shoot down incoming missiles from potential aggressors such as Iran.

Gates told Medvedev such a system, coordinated jointly, would be a strong deterrent for a range of future foes, Morrell said.

"He expressed to President Medvedev his belief that if we were able to cooperate on missile defense, it would send a powerful signal to the rest of the world," Morrell said. "And it would be helpful not just for the threat emanating from Iran, but from unknown threats that may emerge from the upheaval in the Middle East."

Missile Defense Talks

Gates is the latest high-level Obama administration official to visit Russia in recent weeks for talks on missile defense. The U.S. aims to end Russian leaders' opposition to the system, insisting that it is intended to guard against potential attacks from Iran rather than to weaken Russia's offensive capabilities.

Vice President Joseph Biden earlier this month said the U.S. seeks an agreement with Russia on missile defense "this year."

While the defense chiefs didn't achieve a breakthrough today, officials had said that wasn't the purpose of this trip.

"This is one of these issues in which neither we nor our U.S. counterparts have a simple and unequivocal answer to," Serdyukov said.

Building Confidence

Gates has said the two sides are discussing practical and confidence-building steps such as exchanging launch information, setting up a joint data center and conducting a joint assessment.

The data fusion center would be different from a system first proposed a decade ago to ease Russian qualms in that it would focus on sharing information on launches by third parties rather than by each other.

Serdyukov said the discussions between the two sides will continue. Working groups are due to meet again in April, the State Department is conducting diplomatic talks on missile defense, and Serdyukov and Gates are scheduled to meet again in June at a NATO-Russia Council meeting of defense ministers in Brussels.

"We have a common understanding that cooperation is better than confrontation," Serdyukov said.

Article ©2011 BLOOMBERG L.P. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED; article first appeared at www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-03-23/gates-rejects-russian-slap-at-libya-air-strikes-predicts-easing.html

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