LEAVING MOSCOW — Following contentious and unproductive encounters with Russian officials on Friday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates Saturday said he isn't certain that Russia is interested in cooperating with the United States to defend Europe against Iranian missiles or whether Moscow simply wants to stop the U.S. from building missile defenses in Eastern Europe.
Gates, who for years was one of the CIA's top experts on the former Soviet Union, said the U.S. and Russia disagree about how quickly Iran will acquire medium-range ballistic missiles that could reach targets in Europe.
"They acknowledge the Iranians are seeking longer range missiles," Gates told reporters en route home from Moscow. "But there's a real disagreement about how soon that might happen. They talk in terms of 15 to 20 years, but my personal view is that's nonsense."
The Bush administration wants to deploy radars and defensive missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic, both former Soviet satellites, to protect the U.S. and its allies from a possible Iranian attack. Russian officials Friday called for the U.S. to freeze its plan, saying the system could threaten Russia's strategic nuclear deterrent.
Russian officials, who also reject the administration's charges that Iran is secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons, said the U.S. is overstating the Iranian threat. Other critics of the administration's missile defense plans question why, even if Iran did acquire a limited number of longer range missiles and nuclear weapons, the threat of an overwhelming U.S. nuclear counterattack wouldn't be enough to deter an Iranian attack, much as it deterred the Soviet Union from ever using its huge Cold War nuclear arsenal.
Other opponents of the missile defense plan have asked why the administration is pushing it so hard, despite the huge cost and the friction it's caused with Moscow, when questions remain about the proposed system's effectiveness.
Gates said he believes that Russia is asserting its resurgence in the post-Cold War period.
"I think President Putin is coming back and saying you know you have to take us into account on all these things. In essence: 'We are back. We've got a lot of money. And we are a key player.' "
"I'm putting words into his mouth. He didn't say these things. This is my interpretation of perhaps his thinking: 'And you will need our help to solve problems. And if you won't seek our help, we can prevent problems from being solved,' " Gates said.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who joined Gates in Moscow, Saturday criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin for concentrating too much power in the Kremlin and undermining the checks and balances that are supposed to be provided by Russia's legislature, judiciary and news media.
"If you don't have countervailing institutions, then the power of any one president is problematic for democratic development," Rice told reporters accompanying her.
Critics charge that the Bush administration has used the fear of another new terrorist attack to expand President Bush's power at the expense of Congress, the courts, civil liberties and the independence of the Justice Department and other agencies.
For a transcript of Rice's remarks about presidential power and human rights in Russia and other issues, go to: