In a tense start to talks on a range of thorny issues, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday warned US officials that Russia may quit a treaty on intermediate nuclear missiles, a move that could strengthen Moscow's hand in broader wrangling with the US over security.
Addressing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the Russian president appeared to mock the US missile defense plan, which is at the center of a tangle of arms control and diplomatic disputes between the former Cold War adversaries.
"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."
After Putin's session with Gates and Rice, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters that the US delegation had presented "detailed proposals" to address US-Russian differences on missile defense and arms control. He offered no details but said the Russian government is ready to seek compromise.
The Russian government sees the US missile defense plan, which Washington describes as a hedge against the threat of missile attack from Iran, as a worrisome step toward weakening Russian security.
Rice and Gates appeared taken aback at the firm tone and forcefulness of Putin's remarks, which were made from notes in the presence of American and Russian news media before they began a closed-door meeting around an oval table in an ornate conference room at his country house outside the capital.
"We will try to find ways to cooperate," Rice said in response.
"We've been very clear that we need the Czech and Polish sites," she said, although there's "considerable interest" in Russian ideas for cooperation such as sharing a Soviet-era tracking station in Azerbaijan.
After Putin addressed further comments about US-Russian military cooperation to Gates, the American defense secretary responded by saying the Pentagon was ready to intensify a dialogue on military relations.
"We have an ambitious agenda of security issues that concern both of us, including, as you suggest, development of missile systems by others in the neighborhood - I would say in particular, Iran," Gates said.
After keeping Rice and Gates waiting for 40 minutes, Putin began the session with a lengthy monologue in which he also said that Russia may feel compelled to abandon its obligations under a 1987 missile treaty with the US if it is not expanded to constrain other missile-armed countries.
Referring to the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty that was negotiated with the US before the breakup of the Soviet Union, Putin said it must be applied to other countries, including those "located in our near vicinity". He did not mention any by name, but in response, Gates said Washington was interested in limiting missile proliferation in Iran.
The pact eliminated the deployment of Soviet and American ballistic missiles of intermediate range and was a landmark step in arms control just two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall and later the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Putin also has threatened to suspend Russian adherence to another arms control treaty, known as the Conventional Forces in Europe pact, which limits deployments of conventional military forces. Moscow wants it to be revised in ways that thus far have been unacceptable to US and European signatories.
Questions on the missile defense "remain to be agreed", Rice said after meeting Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov later on Friday.
"We believe that to make the joint work of Russian and US experts most effective, plans on deploying the third positioning region (of the missile defense) should be frozen," Lavrov said.
"On this aspect, we still have no agreement."
"What we cannot agree upon today, is the deployment in Europe of a missile defense which has strong anti-Russian potential," Serdyukov said.
Source: China Daily/agencies