Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel said Wednesday that he'd praised Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu for helping to remove Syria's chemical weapons, but Hagel also told Shoigu the United States will continue developing the missile defense system Moscow has opposed for years.
After meeting with Shoigu in Brussels during a break in the NATO summit, Hagel told reporters he would dispatch a top lieutenant, Jim Miller, to Romania next week to join other allied leaders at a groundbreaking ceremony for the missile defense site in the former Soviet bloc country.
In a sign of recently improved relations between Washington and Moscow thanks to the Syria cooperation after an extended period of tension, Hagel spoke with Shoigu during the first meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in several years.
The council was created in 2002 to enable Russian defense ministers to have a presence at meetings of the trans-Atlantic alliance even though Russia is not a NATO member.
Hagel said he and Shoigu had also agreed to have regular teleconference talks to launch "a very open, transparent and frank discussion about not just where we agree, but where we disagree, how we might be able to accommodate each other in some of these areas."
A string of problems between the two countries culminated in July when Russia rejected Attorney General Eric Holder's request to extradite Edward Snowden, a former contract employee of the National Security Agency who had fled there after leaking classified information about NSA surveillance programs.
Russia, meanwhile, continues to protest the missile defense system, which five U.S. presidential administrations have pursued since President Ronald Reagan unveiled plans to build the space- and ground-based "Star Wars" system in 1983 to shield the United States from a Soviet nuclear attack.
"Secretary Hagel assured Minister Shoigu that the United States' missile defense efforts pose no threat to Russia, and he encouraged Russia to consider joint initiatives that increase transparency and provide for mutually beneficial cooperation, enhancing our mutual strategic stability," Pentagon press secretary George Little said after the two men met.
Answering a question from an Egyptian reporter, Hagel said U.S. laws that limit foreign aid guided President Barack Obama's decision two weeks ago to suspend delivery of F-16 jets, Apache helicopters, a large cash payment and a loan guarantee to Cairo following a military coup in July.
"We have laws in the United States that we must comply with on what are the restrictions and what are the boundaries of our assistance to allies regarding government and human rights," Hagel said.
The Pentagon chief added, however, that the United States is still "working with the Egyptian government," which he said "is moving in the right direction, (with a) road map toward inclusive, free democracy, rights for all peoples, assuring that all individuals, all citizens of Egypt have the same rights."
The Egyptian military has led a crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood supporters since it ousted President Mohammed Morsi, a top leader of the group before his June 2012 election.
Hagel said he would send U.S. ground troops to Europe next month for their first participation in a training exercise of the NATO Response Force, a quick-strike multinational unit set up to deploy rapidly to hotspots that threaten Western interests.
And he said U.S. troops will also join large-scale NATO exercises starting in 2015 to ensure continued military coordination with allied nations after the planned completion of the withdrawal of most U.S. forces from Afghanistan next year.
"These new U.S. commitments to NATO send a strong signal about the importance America places on this alliance," Hagel said.
But in a subtle dig at some NATO partners, Hagel reiterated longstanding U.S. complaints that the United States covers too much of the financial and military resources needed to maintain the alliance.
"During this (NATO) ministerial (meeting in Brussels), I stressed the need for our partners to make strong, long-term commitments to NATO," Hagel said. "Overdependence on any one country for critical capabilities brings with it risks, and we must continue to work to more equally share the burden of providing security."