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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

U.S. concerned by Russian arms sales to Iran, Syria

BRUSSELS, March 21 (Reuters) - The United States expressed concern on Wednesday about Russia's arms sales to Iran, Syria and Venezuela and accused Moscow of bullying its neighbours.

Speaking in Brussels before talks with EU officials, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Kramer welcomed Russian cooperation on issues such as counter-terrorism and the nuclear crises with Iran and North Korea and Middle East tensions.

But he also highlighted what Washington saw as negative aspects of Russian policy complicating post-Cold War relations.

"We have areas on which we disagree and those issues include the internal situation in Russia, some aggressive pressure policies against neighbouring states," he told a news briefing.

"We have serious concerns about Russian arms sales to states we feel countries should not be engaging, such as Iran, such as Syria and also ... Venezuela as well."

However he said there had been no significant change in the U.S.-Russia relations since Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the United States last month of seeking to impose its will on the world with dangerous policies.

"None of us wants to see a return to Cold War, we have been through one and that was enough," he said. "Our hope is to move forward with Russia in a way that we pursue common interests."

Kramer also said Washington hoped for positive developments in strained relations between Russia and new EU states like Poland that were once Soviet satellites.

"The challenge for the entire EU is to try to figure out a path and direction to improve relations to advance everyone's interests," he said.

Kramer said he could not rule out the possibility of a Russian veto of a U.N. resolution on the breakaway Serb province of Kosovo, which the West hopes to see move to statehood.

Concerns about Russia's internal policies ranged from concentration of power and pressures on the media, political opponents and non-governmental organisations.

"Trends unfortunately are not going in the right direction," he said. "We have concerns, worries about the trends."

Tensions between Georgia and Russia had eased since a crisis last year, Kramer said, but he warned that the region remained "very unstable and still has the potential to explode".

"Our hope and goal is that Russia and Georgia work constructively to lower the tension," he said, adding that conflicts in breakaway Georgian regions had the potential to spill over into the Northern Caucasus region including Chechnya.

Kramer said the United States was not trying to impose its values on Russia but did seek to encourage democratic progress.

"Russia is not the Soviet Union," he said. "There has been significant progress over the years. But it's our feeling that there is room for more progress."
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