Washington (AFP) March 12, 2008
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates will visit Russia March 17-18, with Russo-US ties sorely strained by US missile defense plans, officials said Wednesday.
With Iran, the Middle East, and Kosovo's declaration of independence also on the agenda, Rice and Gates will meet with their counterparts and seek talks with President Vladimir Putin and president-elect Dmitry Medvedev, aides said.
Putin and US President George W. Bush agreed in a telephone call last week that the talks, a follow up to a similar round in October 2007, would be "a good idea," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.
"The agenda will cover a broad range of bilateral strategic issues, including missile defense, post-START arrangements, cooperation on non-proliferation as well as counterterrorism," she said.
Washington wants to adjust the verification mechanisms under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which can be renewed when it expires in December 2009, to apply to the 2002 Moscow Treaty on nuclear weapon reductions.
Asked whether the discussions would also cover possible next steps in the efforts to confront Iran over its nuclear program, Perino said the topic was not on her list, but "I'm sure that they'll talk about it."
Moscow angrily opposes Washington's hopes to deploy a missile defense radar in the Czech republic and 10 interceptor missiles in Poland by 2012 as part of a shield that Bush says will counter a possible missile launch by Iran.
Russia says it views the deployment of such a system as a threat to its security, and has warned it may target the host countries -- both formerly Soviet satellites -- with nuclear weapons.
Bush has met separately in the past two weeks with the Czech and Polish prime ministers. The Czech prime minister suggested a deal was imminent, while Poland's defense minister now says a decision is "much closer."
The meeting will take place as Putin has only weeks -- until Medvedev takes office May 7 -- to formally sign any accord with Washington.
Asked whether Rice and Gates would meet with either Russian leader, a US official who requested anonymity replied: "We'll look for both of those, we'll see them."
US officials note that the visit will come ahead of an early April NATO summit that they expect will further strain relations because of possible eastward expansion of the alliance designed to contain the former Soviet Union.
"Both presidents are going to see each other at the Bucharest summit in a few weeks, and they thought it maybe right to have their principal foreign affairs and defense leaders get together and discuss some of the issues we've been working on, to see if we can make additional progress before the NATO summit," said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell.
Another US official, who also requested anonymity, said the timing and location of the meeting aimed to "make more forward progress" on the missile defense issue than has been possible in lower-level talks.
"There have been plenty of expert-level meetings. It's time for the secretaries and ministers to meet," said the official, who played down prospects for a breakthrough on the dispute.
At similar talks in Moscow in October, Rice and Gates found a newly assertive Kremlin firmly resistant to Washington's missile defense plans.
And Putin surprised the US officials with a blunt warning that Russia would abandon a key nuclear missile treaty, and a mocking suggestion for cooperating someday on a missile shiled "established somewhere on the moon."
earlier related report
The leaders, at an April 2-4 summit in Bucharest, will discuss a new analysis of the threat posed by a possible missile attack, the role of the US system, and how NATO might complement it to provide coverage for all 26 allies.
A NATO study in 2006, found only that the allies could face a threat of such an attack and that a defence shield was one possible way to counter it. It was never acted upon. This was before the US announced its own missile plan.
The new analysis "will allow heads of state and government to have informed discussions and eventually make decisions on a NATO approach to missile defence," said Peter Flory, head of NATO's defence investment division.
"The Bucharest summit has the potential to be a very important summit on this topic," he told reporters in Brussels.
Flory underlined, however, that he did not expect decisions that would immediately launch construction of a new missile defence system.
"I can readily envisage decisions, but I don't envisage that we will come out of it and be ready to go to someone with a contract," he said.
Washington announced in January 2007 that it wanted to install 10 missile interceptors in Poland and a radar base in the Czech Republic to cover US territory but also some European allies, and wanted it operational by 2013.
The shield is aimed at countering attacks from "rogue states" such as Iran.
The problem for NATO is that four members -- Bulgaria, Romania, Greece and Turkey -- are either only partly covered or left out of the umbrella all together, which undermines the "indivisibility of allied security".
To resolve this, the alliance has been discussing plans to add on an in-theatre missile system to the US shield, usually used to protect troops in battle, which it is developing and hopes to have in use by 2010.
Flory said NATO leaders could announce in Bucharest that they share a common view of what constitutes a missile threat, the role the US shield would play and how NATO's system would work with it.
They might also acknowledge that a defence shield could be part of a strategy to deal with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
His staff and NATO working groups, he said, could be asked to "develop options for consideration at the 2009 summit", on a possible shield.
Flory would not be drawn on the costs, but he said that a plan for a NATO-only shield to cover all the allies was priced at 20-27 billion euros over 20 years. The United States will pay for its own shield.
He said costs were hard to pin down as "we won't have identified which option, if any, NATO might want to take" by next month.
"Nations are working this very hard," he said, but "there's not complete agreement on all aspects, including on the technical part" of the future shield.
earlier related report
"We are now much closer to a final decision on the anti-missile shield in Poland," said Klich after meeting with Prime Minister Donald Tusk, PAP reported.
Tusk had just returned from a two-day visit to Washington where he met with US President George W. Bush, who promised to help Poland upgrade its military before he leaves office in January 2009.
Bush also vowed that the key US ally in eastern Europe would not face "undue security risks" if Poland hosted components of the planned missile shield.
Modernising the Polish military is one of the demands of Poland's liberal premier, who ousted the conservatives in November elections, before he will agree to the installation of the missile shield.
Washington wants to put 10 missile silos in Poland and radar in the neighbouring Czech Republic as part of its missile shield to defend against "rogue" states such as Iran.
Russia is vehemently opposed to the US missile shield, which Moscow considers a major security threat.
Klich added that an agreement would depend on Warsaw's assessment of the risks to the security of the ex-Soviet bloc nation.
Opinion polls suggest that most Poles oppose hosting US anti-ballistic missiles given the threats by Russia to point its warheads at its neighbour.
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Anti-missile protest planned in Czech capital
Prague (AFP) March 11, 2008
Critics of a planned US anti-missile installation on Czech soil on Tuesday announced a weekend protest, even as Prague and Washington appear to be nearing agreement on the project.
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