Saint Petersburg: US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, a former CIA chief who spent years tracking Moscow, hailed "extraordinary" progress in ties as he arrived in Russia on Monday for a two-day visit.
Speaking to reporters on his plane before landing in Saint Petersburg, Gates said military ties had made dramatic advances that would have seemed impossible when he joined the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1960s amid the Cold War.
"Well, it`s a lot different than it was in 1966, let me tell you. No, I think if you look at the areas where we are cooperating and the kind of dialogue that we`re having with the Russians, we have come quite a distance," Gates said.
The Pentagon chief cited Moscow`s willingness to allow NATO to move troops and supplies by air and land across Russian territory in support of the war in Afghanistan as an example of improving relations.
"At this point we have probably sent more than 30,000 containers across Russia," said Gates, saying the figure "continues to amaze me”.
"Russia`s willingness to work with us in this I think is really extraordinary," he added.
Gates praised Russia for backing the US diplomatic stance on Iran and North Korea and its decision not to block last week`s UN resolution approving military action against Libya.
"The fact that despite their reservations they didn`t veto resolution 1973" on enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya was another example of Moscow`s cooperative relations with Washington, he said.
But the war in Libya threatened to overshadow the visit, with Russia`s Foreign Ministry on Sunday calling for France, Britain, the United States and other countries to end what it called the "indiscriminate use of force”.
Russia had abstained from the UN Security Council vote on taking military action to halt Muammar Gaddafi’s assault on rebels and ruled out taking part in such an operation.
Gates was due to address junior military officers at a naval museum in Saint Petersburg on Monday before heading to Moscow on Tuesday to meet his Russian counterpart Anatoly Serdyukov and President Dmitry Medvedev.
While previous trips to Russia had been dominated by disputes over a planned US missile defence shield in Europe, this visit would cover a broader range of issues and reflected deepening military ties between the two countries, US officials said.
Missile defence is "not the driver for this visit" though "it will clearly be the subject of considerable conversation”, press secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters on Friday.
Gates delayed his trip by a day to monitor the launch of US military missile and bombing attacks against Libya`s regime.
With Gates vowing to step down later this year, the visit will mark his last trip to Russia as defence secretary, officials said.