Meeting highlights growing U.S.-Russia tensions

MOSCOW — A much anticipated meeting Friday between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and top Russian officials made no progress toward resolving the disputes over missile defense and other issues that have sunk relations between the two nations to their lowest level since the end of the Cold War.

Instead, the meeting exposed how the high hopes that Russia and America would cooperate on missile defenses, international arms control treaties and counterterrorism have given way to fear that their differences over those issues and others, such as Iran, have recharged the rivalry between the two countries.

The day began on a sour note. When asked by reporters whether the talks could lead to a breakthrough, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov replied: "Breaks definitely, (but) through or down, I don't know." Russian President Vladimir Putin then kept Gates and Rice waiting for 40 minutes and mocked some of the U.S. proposals on missile defense as the two looked on, at times appearing to be taken aback.

"Of course we can sometime in the future decide that some anti-missile defense system should be established somewhere on the moon," Putin said. "But before we reach such arrangements, we will lose the opportunity for fixing some particular arrangements between us."

Gates and Rice tried to reassure the Russians that the administration's proposal to deploy ballistic missile defenses in the Czech Republic and Poland — former satellites of the old Soviet Union — is intended to protect Europe from a possible Iranian threat, not to counter Russia's nuclear missiles.

"It would have no impact on Russia's strategic deterrent," Gates said. In an effort to assuage Russian concerns, he and Rice proposed that observers and a system of "transparency" accompany the new missile defenses.

But the Russians' problem was geography, not transparency. Lavrov called on the U.S. to freeze its deployment plans, which he and Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov called "anti-Russian." The Russians also threatened to respond to any deployments, but didn't suggest how they might do so.

"There is a potential threat for us here," Lavrov said. "And we will have to take some measure to neutralize this threat. We would prefer to avoid such a scenario."

The Bush administration remains determined to proceed with its plans to install interceptors in Poland and a missile tracking radar in the Czech Republic, U.S. officials said, especially because it believes that Iran is developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

Before Bush and Gates even arrived, however, Putin, who's scheduled to visit Tehran next month, pointedly declared that there's no evidence that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons. Lavrov said his country wants to monitor Iran's nuclear program through the United Nations Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency, and he rejected the U.S. call for tougher sanctions on Tehran.

The U.S. also proposed adjustments to the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, which limits key categories of conventional weapons and forces. Lavrov called the latest U.S. proposals nothing new, saying that although they're a step in the right direction, "this step is insufficient."

U.S. officials traveling with Rice and Gates rejected suggestions that the meeting was a failure, calling the agreement to discuss these issues again and to consider the U.S. proposals progress.

"I don't think we expected the Russians to agree with these proposals today," said a senior administration official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity.

The U.S. also introduced specifics of a "Joint Regional Missile Defense Architecture," or missile defense cooperation, with their Russian counterparts, who agreed to consider the proposal. If embraced, the plan could take relations between the two countries "to quite a new level," the official said.

The Kremlin leader also said that the Cold War-INF treaty, which limits Russian and U.S. short- and medium-range missiles, was outdated because other nations are acquiring those weapons. Putin said it should be updated.

"If we are unable to make such a goal of making this treaty universal, then it will be difficult for us to keep within the framework of such a treaty, especially when other countries do have such weapons systems," Putin said.