( Reuters ) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was guardedly optimistic on Monday that Washington could agree on a missile defense system with Russia by the end of the Bush administration's term in January 2009.
"I think the answer is yes," Gates told reporters in Moscow when asked whether he thought the disputed missile defense system could be agreed by the end of the Bush administration.
"But I would also say the environment in our meetings was positive today. Whether that leads to a positive conclusion remains to be seen" he added.
Gates and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Russian President Vladimir Putin and president-elect Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow in the first of two days of talks aimed at trying to break a deadlock in the missile defense system that Washington wants placed in Europe and Russia opposes.
Similar meetings last October ended on a bitter note with no signs of a breakthrough.
"There was a sincere exchange of views and I think people were actually listening to each other in terms of what was being said, which gives me some hope," said Gates.
Speaking at the same news conference, Rice said Putin wanted his experts to look over U.S. proposals, including the placement of Russian officials at the U.S.-planned missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic.
She said Moscow needed assurances that the missile defense system, which the U.S. says is to counter any future threat from states like Iran, was not aimed at the Russians.
"We are trying to bridge this conceptual gap as to what this missile defense system is for," she said. "This is a system that is not aimed at in any way degrading the Russian nuclear deterrent."
Gates said he had raised, as the two did during talks last October, Russian concerns that at some future date there could be a shift and the shield could be converted into an offensive system towards Russia.
"I said we can negotiate limits that make sure that doesn't happen, without any kind of mutual consent," said Gates.