MOSCOW — In a tense start to talks on a range of thorny issues, President Vladimir Putin on Friday warned U.S. officials to back off a plan to install missile defenses in eastern Europe or risk harming relations with Moscow.
Addressing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the Russian president appeared to mock the U.S. 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, according to an English translation. "But before we reach such arrangements we will lose the opportunity for fixing some particular arrangements between us."
Putin said Russia may feel obliged to abandon its obligations under a 1987 missile treaty with the United States if it is not expanded to constrain other missile-armed countries.
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.
"We need to convince other (countries) to assume the same level of obligation as assumed by the Russian Federation and the United States," Putin said. "If we are unable to obtain such a goal ... it will be difficult for us to keep within the framework of the treaty in a situation where other countries do develop such weapon systems, and among those are countries located in our near vicinity."
Putin pulls no punches
Rice and Gates appeared to reporters in the room to be taken aback at the firm tone of Putin' remarks.
Gates and Rice met Putin at his dacha, or residence, outside of Moscow to begin a series of high-level meetings on a range of touchy topics headed by Russia's opposition to an American plan for a missile defense system in Europe.
On Thursday, Rice said plans to expand the U.S. missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic will proceed, but she wants to seek Russian suggestions for cooperation to address Moscow's opposition to the program.
Shortly before the talks with Putin began, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov strolled into the dacha's billiards room, where American reporters had gathered, for a cigarette break. He was asked whether he expected any breakthroughs in the talks.
"Breaks, definitely. Through or down, I don't know," he said.
The Pentagon plans to install 10 missile interceptors in Poland, linked to a missile tracking radar in the Czech Republic. The Pentagon says the system will provide some protection in Europe and beyond for long-range missiles launched from Iran, but Russia believes the system is a step toward undermining the deterrent value of its nuclear arsenal.
Rice said the United States would go ahead with the program as planned.
"We've been very clear that we need the Czech and Polish sites," she said Thursday, although there's "considerable interest" in Russian ideas for cooperation such as sharing a Soviet-era tracking station in Azerbaijan.
"We're going to keep exploring ideas, we want to explore ideas," she said. "We are interested in other potential sites as well and we may be able to find ways to put that together."
Beyond the discussion with Putin, Gates and Rice also were to meet with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov. Rice and Gates also scheduled a dinner with First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, whose portfolio includes national security issues and who until recently held the defense minister's job.
On Gates' last trip to Moscow, in April, he explained a U.S. proposal for U.S.-Russian cooperation on missile defense, including information sharing and some joint experiments. So far the Russians have not responded, a defense official traveling with Gates told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Rice acknowledged Thursday that she would welcome a face-to-face discussion with Putin about his future political plans, including his interest in becoming prime minister.
Staying in power in Moscow?
The prospect of Putin clinging to power after his presidential term ends has caused U.S. dismay, with the Bush administration expressing concerns about democratic backsliding in Russia, a consolidation of power in the Kremlin, and crackdowns on independent media and opposition groups.
Rice, an expert on the former Soviet Union before she joined the administration, said she would not raise the issue herself.
"I wouldn't turn down that offer," Rice said with a smile when asked by reporters how she would respond if Putin raised the topic. But she refused to be drawn out on the subject.
Earlier this month, Putin said he would lead the ticket of the main pro-Kremlin party in the parliamentary elections coming up in the next few months and could later take the prime minister's job — a hint that he could remain at the helm and eclipse a weaker president.
On Iran, Putin says there's no proof Tehran is trying to build a nuclear weapons program .
Rice, on her way to Moscow, accused Iran of "lying" about the aim of its nuclear program and deceiving the U.N.'s atomic watchdog about its intentions.
"There is an Iranian history of obfuscation and, indeed, lying to the IAEA," Rice said, referring to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
U.S. officials long have accused Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons behind the facade of a civil atomic energy program, charges Tehran denies. The Bush administration is pushing for new sanctions to punish Iran, but has yet to gather enough backing at the United Nations for such a move.
The United States and Russia also differ on the future of a treaty limiting deployment of conventional military forces in Europe as well as the prospect of Kosovo declaring independence from Serbia as early as December.
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