U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates hailed Russia's “extraordinary” willingness to cooperate with the U.S. as he began a two-day visit to Russia on Monday.

Mr. Gates praised Russia for allowing transit of NATO troops and supplies across its territory to Afghanistan.

“Russia is an integral part of the northern distribution network for supporting our operations in Afghanistan,” Mr. Gates told reporters on his plane before landing in Saint Petersburg. “Russia's willingness to work with us in this I think is really extraordinary,” he added.

The U.S. defence chief cited Russia's decisions to side with the U.S. on Iran and North Korea and to abstain rather than block last week's U.N. resolution approving military action against Libya as further examples of unprecedented cooperation between the two countries. Russian sources said it was U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden who on a visit to Moscow last month persuaded the Russian leadership not to veto the U.N. resolution on a no-fly zone in Libya.

Mr. Gates expressed the hope that remaining differences between Washington and Moscow would be resolved in the same spirit of cooperation.

“We've disagreed before, and Russia still has uncertainties” about the revamped U.S. missile-defence system, Mr. Gates told Russian military officers of at a Naval Academy in Saint Petersburg. “However, we've mutually committed to resolving these difficulties.”

He offered to share launch information and setting up a joint missile data centre with Russia. Moscow has rejected this offer as insufficient and pressed for building a joint missile defence system for Europe.

For Mr. Gates, who steps down later this year, it is the fourth and last visit to Russia as the U.S. Defence Secretary. On Tuesday he will meet Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov.

Experts said the Russian leaders will demand an explanation from Mr. Gates about the military operation in Libya, which Moscow said exceeded the U.N. Security Council mandate for protecting the civilian population. Russia on Sunday demanded a halt to the armed attacks on Libya.

Interestingly, Mr. Gates, who had reportedly objected to intervening in Libya, warned against expanding the goals of military strikes in Libya. In his first public comment about the air mission against Libya made aboard his plane heading to Russia, the Pentagon chief said he thinks “it's important that we operate within the mandate of the U.N. Security Council resolution.”

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