updated 4/1/2008 3:19:28 PM ET 2008-04-01T19:19:28

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday the United States and Russia are closer to an accommodation on U.S. missile defenses in Europe. He expressed hope new steps will be agreed on in weekend talks between President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Gates suggested at a news conference in the Danish capital that overcoming Russia's objections to U.S. plans for missile defense bases in Poland and the Czech Republic could have the added benefit of easing concerns among U.S. allies in Europe about Russia's public threats to retaliate if the bases are installed.

Missile defense is among topics on the agenda of a NATO summit this week in Bucharest, Romania.

Gates was in Copenhagen to consult with Danish government leaders ahead of the summit, as well as to publicly acknowledge that Denmark has suffered a disproportionate number of the casualties in Afghanistan.

Denmark, a NATO member with a population of 5.4 million, has had 14 military members killed in Afghanistan since 2002, including five this year. The most recent death, announced Monday, was a member of a Royal Life Guard unit whose headquarters was the venue for Gates' talks here Tuesday. Denmark has about 600 troops in Afghanistan, mostly in the southern province of Helmand where fighting is heavy.

A leading Danish newspaper, the Politiken, printed on its front page Tuesday photos of all 14 of those killed.

The U.S. military, with about 31,000 troops in Afghanistan, has had 422 deaths in and around Afghanistan since it launched an invasion to overthrow the Taliban regime in October 2001. The deaths include 289 killed in combat, according to figures published by the Defense Department.

Asked about prospects for a breakthrough in the Putin-Bush talks following the summit, Gates said he was not predicting any particular result but believed that recent talks had moved the two sides closer to an understanding, including meetings that he and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held in Moscow in March.

U.S. says bases would deter Iran
Moscow objects to U.S. missile defense sites in Europe mainly on grounds that they would undermine the Russian nuclear deterrent — an assertion that Washington repeatedly has rejected as untrue. The United States says the European sites would be designed to counter a future missile threat from Iran.

"The Russians are probably never going to like missile defense," Gates said. "But I think the assurances that we have provided and the mechanisms that we have proposed give them assurance that it is not aimed at them, and my hope is that that will lead to positive outcomes" this week.

Gates said he was confident that the talks he and Rice held in Moscow "had a real impact on them" in terms of accommodating Russia's desire to be allowed to monitor activities at the sites in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Gates had said on Monday that he expects a public statement of support for missile defense by the allies at this week's NATO summit.

"To the degree there have been reservations among some here in western Europe about missile defense, in part it has been concern over the Russian reaction," Gates said at a joint news conference Tuesday with his Danish counterpart, Soeren Gade.

Gade described himself as "a strong believer" in the value of missile defenses. He noted that during the 1991 Gulf War he was stationed in Israel, which suffered Scud missile attacks from Iraq. "It was pretty scary to see those missiles," Gade said.

The Danish minister said the United States should integrate its proposed European system with NATO missile defenses.

"I know that some countries are very reluctant to (accept) this missile defense system, but at the end of the day it's to protect the people in our alliance," he said.

Bush is scheduled to meet with Putin at the Black Sea resort of Sochi this weekend, following the NATO summit, to discuss missile defense.

At his news conference with Gade, Gates said he expects allies at the Bucharest summit to commit additional troops to the Afghanistan mission. But he doubted they would be enough to meet the minimum requirement set by the top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Daniel McNeill, who says he needs at least another two battalions of ground combat forces and another battalion to perform border security missions. That amounts to a shortfall of about 3,000 troops.

Gates said McNeill actually would like to have another three brigades, which would translate to roughly 10,000 troops, although 3,000 is the official shortfall spelled out in a NATO document.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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