U.S. Defense Secretary gets cool Russian response over missile plan

( Reuters ) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates invited Russia to become a partner in its missile defence activities on Monday but his hosts made clear they were still against a planned missile shield in Europe.

Washington says it wants to station elements of its shield in Poland and the Czech Republic to protect it and its allies from missile attacks by so-called "rogue states." Moscow says the project threatens its national security.

The issue has helped drive relations between Moscow and Washington to a new low and prompted some officials to draw comparisons with the Cold War.

"The days of the Cold War are over and no one should seek a return to them," said Gates, on a tour of Europe to ease concern over the plan. "We invite Russia to join our defensive endeavor as a partner."

But Russian Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov repeated Moscow's opposition, responding: "The Russian position on this issue remains unchanged."

"The strategic missile defence system is a serious destabilizing factor which could have significant impact on regional and global security," Interfax quoted him as saying.

Gates later met Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin. Putin said he planned to speak by telephone with U.S. President George W. Bush after his meeting with Gates.

The U.S. Defense Secretary, whose diplomatic push also takes in Poland and Germany, told reporters he was willing to explore sharing missile defence technology with Russia, like data from early warning systems.

"When both the United States and Russia work together, both countries and others win. When we fail to work together, both countries may lose," Gates said.

Both Serdyukov and Gates said after their talks they had agreed to further discussions through experts. But a senior administration official travelling with Gates said the Pentagon intends to move forward, whatever the response from Russia.

"We're going to continue to make this effort with Russia but we're also very clear, whether Russia cooperates with us or not is really up to Russia," the official said on Sunday.

Washington wants to place 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and radar in the Czech Republic, at a cost of $3.5 billion.

U.S. officials cast the issue in technical, not political, terms and argue the science is simple. The systems Washington wants to put in Poland and the Czech Republic cannot be used to defeat a Russian missile, they say.

But Moscow has both technical and strategic objections. Some Russian officials argue the sites are so close to their borders that they could harm its security and some say Washington could equip the sites with offensive weapons aimed at Russia.

Russian officials say they support exploring a collective system that would protect against rogue states, but are annoyed that Washington has gone ahead unilaterally.

Missile defence is only one sign of deteriorating relations between the former Cold War foes.

While the United States has accused Russia of rolling back democracy and trying to revive past imperialism, Moscow charges Washington with acting unilaterally and meddling in its affairs.

Russia and the United States also have different takes on Iran's nuclear program, which the West suspects is to develop atomic weapons and Tehran says is to generate power. A Russian contractor is building Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant.

Washington also criticizes Russia for selling anti-aircraft missile systems to Iran, saying it undermines regional security.

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