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Albright delivers upbeat report of talks with Russian officials

For three days this week, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright drove home one central point to her Russian hosts: We want to work with you, not against you.

Her schedule, which included co-chairing a Middle East development conference with her Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov, and a bilateral agenda with issues where the two countries share at least some common ground, helped reinforce her message.

Her prolonged meeting Wednesday in the Kremlin with acting Russian President Vladimir Putin _ a visit scheduled for 45 minutes that lasted close to three hours _ seemed to go well, even providing grounds to hope that the current strain in U.S.-Russia ties can be overcome.

Later Albright said Putin had come across as an energetic, patient, open, informed problem-solver, who appeared receptive _ at least in part _ to her message.

"I was impressed by the kind of can-do approach that President Putin put forward in terms of the issues that we discussed," she said. Putin's manner was practical rather than dogmatic, she said.

For his part, Putin acknowledged differences between the two sides but called the United States an important global partner.

"We have serious differences," the former spy said. "But at the same time, we have our relationship as between great and important powers."

Albright's meeting was the first by a senior member of a Western government with Putin since he became acting president New Year's Eve, so her generally upbeat, albeit sketchy, assessment is considered significant _ especially since Putin's intentions for Russia in foreign affairs remain a question mark.

But there were enough warning signs during her visit here to make one point clear: Rebuilding the trust required for a meaningful partnership between Washington and Moscow will be a long and difficult task.

Among the issues:

+ Chechnya. Albright's repeated efforts to coax Russian leaders to consider some form of political dialogue to end the war in the breakaway republic of Chechnya were flatly rebuffed.

"Neither of us minced words on Chechnya (but) I don't think we're any closer to a political solution (there)," Albright said after the meeting. She said Putin set out a vision of greater political autonomy and economic reconstruction for Chechnya, but gave no hint how he planned to "get from here to there."

Albright said he did, however, seem receptive to proposals she made to send a humanitarian needs assessment team to Chechnya and ease restrictions on accredited journalists attempting to cover the war.

Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev claimed "an irreversible breakthrough" in the six-month war on Wednesday, saying the war-ravaged Chechen capital, Grozny, appeared to be in the hands of advancing federal forces.

+ Suspicion. An Albright speech earlier Wednesday at the Russian Diplomatic Academy making the case for deeper U.S.-Russian cooperation drew skepticism as well as applause. Two of the four questions allowed from the audience after the speech expressed concern about the preponderance of America's power. One young questioner merely shook his head in disbelief as she tried to explain America was seeking partnership with Russia, not dominance.

"I know we're going through a kind of strange period in U.S.-Russia relations, but I hope very much we'll get through it," she concluded.

+ Priorities. Russian foreign affairs specialists say Westerners have dramatically underestimated the significance of Putin's arrival in the Kremlin: that it signals a new focus on domestic affairs, an emphasis on the restoration of central power and a corresponding de-emphasis on foreign affairs.

Anatoly Utkin, an adviser to the State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, predicted that China would increasingly become a new focus of Russian foreign policy, with Moscow expanding its arms sales to Beijing and also helping it strategically.

One area where Albright seemed to achieve at least the hope of headway came on the divisive issue of arms control, where Russia opposes the desire by the United States to amend the 28-year-old Antiballistic Missile treaty. The United States is expected to decide by mid-year whether to order development of a system that could guard the country against a limited missile attack from a small country like North Korea.

Albright said she had been encouraged by Putin's willingness to accept an understanding of the new nuclear threat from such nations and his apparent openness to solutions as long as they preserved the fundamentals of the ABM treaty.

Moscow fears an American national missile defense system would negate its own nuclear deterrent and touch off an arms race.

Albright also renewed a U.S. pitch that the Russian Parliament ratify the 1993 START II treaty, which calls for reducing the U.S. and Russian arsenals of long-range nuclear warheads to 3,000 to 3,500 apiece.

The previous Russian Parliament failed to pass the pact. However, U.S. officials say they are hoping the newly elected State Duma, the lower house, will ratify the document.