updated 4/26/2007 3:51:15 PM ET 2007-04-26T19:51:15

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Thursday dismissed Russian concerns over Washington's plans to deploy anti-missile defenses in Europe, saying the American interceptors would pose no danger to Moscow's nuclear arsenal.

"Let's be real about this and realistic about this, the idea that somehow 10 interceptors and a few radars in eastern Europe are going to threaten the Soviet strategic deterrent is purely ludicrous and everybody knows it," Rice told reporters before NATO talks with Russia's foreign minister.

"The Russians have thousands of warheads. The idea that you can somehow stop the Russian strategic nuclear deterrent with a few interceptors just doesn't make sense."

The missile debate dominated the start of the two-day talks among NATO foreign ministers, who also were focusing on efforts to back up the alliance's military mission in Afghanistan, and a split between Russia and Western powers over the future of Kosovo.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will join the talks after an opening session among the 26 NATO allies.

Opening another front in the war of words between Russia and NATO, President Vladimir Putin in Moscow called for a suspension of Russia's participation in a key Soviet-era arms control treaty in response to NATO nations' refusal to ratify an updated version of the agreement.

The 1990 treaty regulates the deployment of military aircraft, tanks and other heavy non-nuclear weapons around Europe. The United States and other NATO members have refused ratify an updated version of the treaty until Moscow abides by its commitment to withdraw troops from the ex-Soviet republics of Moldova and Georgia.

Behaving incorrectly
"Our partners are behaving incorrectly, to say the least," Putin said in his annual state-of-the-nation address . "They are using the current situation to build up a network of military bases near our borders. What's more, they also plan to deploy elements of anti-missile defense in the Czech Republic and Poland."

He threatened to pull out of the treaty altogether if progress is not made.

NATO's top diplomat said he hoped Lavrov would clarify Putin's comments.

"This is a subject which without any doubt will be discussed," Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told reporters. "I expect minister Sergey Lavrov later this afternoon to explain the words of his president."

A flurry of high-level talks in recent weeks has failed to soften Russia's public opposition to the U.S. plan to install radar scanners in the Czech Republic and 10 interceptor missiles in Poland.

Washington says the deployment is aimed at protecting Europe and North America from a growing threat of missile strike by North Korea, Iran or others in the Middle East. Moscow says those countries do not pose an immediate threat, and claims the U.S. plan aims to target Russia's strategic missile arsenal.

Rice said the U.S. would continue efforts to "demystify" the plan for the Russians by pushing an offer to cooperate with Moscow by sharing data and technology. She insisted that Russia, Europe and the United States shared a common threat from the risk of Iran developing long-range ballistic missiles.

"We are very happy to continue this dialogue, but we have to continue it on the basis of a realist assessment of what we are proposing, not one that is grounded somehow in the '80s," she told a brief news conference with her Norwegian counterpart, Jonas Gahr Stoere.

Cold War language revived
Russian officials and generals have revived Cold War language in criticizing the American plan, threatening to target the installations in eastern Europe. The rhetoric has unnerved some in Western Europe, who fear the negative impact on relations with the Kremlin may outweigh any benefits of the missile shield.

"I remain to be convinced about the nature of the threats and the way to respond to them," Stoere told reporters after his meeting with Rice.

"The important thing is to prevent the spiral of mistrust between Russia and the USA," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said.

However, NATO diplomats said there was a growing support for the U.S. plans among European governments.

Ministers had been expecting a briefing on Iran's nuclear stance from European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, but EU officials said he was unlikely to make it to Oslo because talks in Turkey with Iranian negotiator Ali Larijani had gone on longer than expected.

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