US defense secretary meets with Russia about missile-defense sites

( LatWp ) - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates took the Bush administration's campaign to install a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe to the highest levels Monday, meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin, the plan's fiercest opponent.

Gates emerged hopeful after meeting with Putin and senior Russian officials, saying the two sides had reached an agreement to set up a bilateral committee of experts to go over Russia's objections, including his concern that the bases could be converted to other uses.

``We made some real headway,'' Gates told reporters after the day-long discussions.

Putin did not comment on the substance of the talks, but his new Defense minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, reiterated Moscow's objections after meeting separately with Gates. ``The Russian position remains unchanged,'' Serdyukov said.

The administration opened negotiations in January to place 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a missile-tracking radar in the Czech Republic as the core of what would be a third site for the Pentagon's global missile-defense system.

The first two sites, which are being tested in Alaska and central California, are aimed predominantly at defending against an attack from North Korea. The administration says the European site would defend the United States and its NATO allies against long-range Iranian missiles.

Senior U.S. military and diplomatic officials have fanned out across Europe in recent weeks to counter growing opposition to the plan. But Gates' visit to Moscow, which will be followed by stops in Warsaw and Berlin, marks the first time a cabinet-level official has made the trek to push the program. Russian officials said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also has scheduled a visit to Moscow this month.

Senior administration officials traveling with Gates said they recently provided Moscow with a list of five areas in which the two countries could cooperate, including working together on research and development of the system, sharing data gathered by the system's radars and joint testing of the system's components.

Many of these proposals have been made before, and U.S. officials indicated they have yet to get a firm response. But Gates said informal discussions showed Russia was willing to work with the United States. He said he was not discouraged by Serdyukov's reiteration of Russia's objections.

``I had the impression, frankly, that that statement was prepared before the meeting,'' Gates said. ``There were a number of side conversations going on among the experts, senior Russian military officers and our experts, that even went beyond some of the discussions at the table.''

U.S. officials deny there is any new urgency to their efforts, saying the diplomatic push is tied to bilateral negotiations with Prague and Warsaw. A senior administration official traveling with Gates said the U.S. would like to strike a deal with both countries in a matter of weeks.

Russian officials have dismissed U.S. rationales for the system, arguing that Iran is years away from developing viable long-range missiles. They accuse the Bush administration of trying to gain a military foothold in the former Warsaw Pact countries.

U.S. officials say converting the facilities to other military uses would be difficult and expensive. One official added, however, that the United States would not allow Moscow to veto a deal with Prague and Warsaw.

``We believe the countries that emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Union are actually sovereign countries,'' said the official traveling, one of several senior administration aides traveling with Gates. ``We don't believe in spheres of influence.''

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