By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 19, 2008; Page A12
MOSCOW, March 18 — The United States and Russia failed again Tuesday to bridge their differences over U.S. plans to build a missile defense system in Eastern Europe to guard against potential attacks from Iran. But in two days of talks here, both sides adopted a strikingly moderate tone after a long period of rancor between the two countries.
The USS Lake Erie launches a Standard Missile-3 at a non-functioning National Reconnaissance Office satellite as it traveled in space at more than 17,000 mph over the Pacific Ocean, February 20, 2008; photo released by the U.S. Defense Department. REUTERS/Defense Dept. photo by U.S. Navy.
The Americans “agreed that their project fuels our concerns and offered proposals aimed at lifting or easing these concerns,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov after meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.
Gates told reporters after the talks that his side would submit written proposals seeking to temper Russian fears about the missile system. Russian military inspectors would have access to sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, and the system would not be activated until there was demonstrable evidence that Iran had tested missiles capable of reaching the United States or its allies in Western Europe, U.S. officials said.
Russian officials have argued that placing a defense system on Russia’s borders is not necessary because Iran is many years away from developing such long-range missiles. They also say they fear that any radar system placed in Eastern Europe would be used to peer into Russian airspace and undermine the country’s strategic forces.
“We’ve leaned very far forward in this in an effort to provide reassurance,” Gates told reporters. He added, however, that the United States would not be dissuaded from going forward with the system.
Lavrov described the U.S. proposals as “important and useful for the minimization of our concerns.” But Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, who also took part in the talks, cautioned that “the positions of our two sides have not changed.”
Gates said the Bush administration expects an answer “reasonably quickly” after it submits its written offer, but some news reports here suggested that Moscow might be playing for time, knowing that a new administration in Washington could take a different position on the necessity of missile defense.
The newspaper Vedomosti wrote Tuesday that “if the Democrats win the U.S. presidential election, they could review the missile defense program.”
It could also be that with the end of Russia’s election season and the recent victory of President Vladimir Putin‘s handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, the Kremlin sees no further domestic advantage in upbraiding the Bush administration and wants to reverse the deterioration in relations.
When Rice and Gates visited Moscow in October, they were subjected to some public finger-wagging by Putin as the cameras rolled. This time Putin did not even mention missile defense when he first met the two Monday at a short session in front of the news media.
“I would say they listened very carefully,” Gates told reporters Tuesday. “President Putin took extensive notes last night, and there was a lot done during the day today. That said, the full range of what we are now prepared to offer to discuss with the Russians is really just now after the day’s talks being put down on paper.”
In October, the Russians complained that U.S.-written proposals failed to live up to earlier oral offers from Rice and Gates. In particular, the Russians expressed concern about the adequacy of access to the sites slated for Eastern Europe.
The October statement may have stemmed from opposition in Poland and the Czech Republic to giving Russian military observers access to the facilities — and particularly to the idea that they might be permanently stationed there. Both countries have bitter memories of the Soviet troops who were posted within their borders during the Cold War.
Poland’s new prime minister, Donald Tusk, struck a conciliatory note Tuesday about the possibility of Russian inspectors.
“From our side there is a readiness to talk seriously about what this monitoring — that would give our neighbors a sense of security — could look like,” said Tusk, who said he had spoken both to Putin and President Bush about the possibility.
Rice and Gates, who also carried a letter from Bush to Putin, said the two countries had agreed to negotiate a “joint strategic framework document” that would build on existing cooperation in areas such as preventing the spreading of nuclear weapons and fighting terrorism.