Defense Secretary Robert Gates flew into Russia on Monday to try to reassure President Vladimir Putin over U.S. plans to put missile defenses in Europe, a dispute that has helped drive relations to a new low.
The United States is offering to share some benefits of the missile shield with the Russians, saying it is meant to address a possible threat from so-called rogue states such as Iran.
But Russia sees plans to site missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic as a threat, in a row that has drawn comparisons with the Cold War.
Gates, who landed in Moscow on Monday morning, first met Russia’s defense minister, Anatoly Serdyukov.
The Russian minister said military ties were positive overall but, in an apparent reference to the missile shield, he said “there remain a number of issues that are causing excessive tension,” RIA news agency reported.
A senior administration official traveling with Gates said the defense secretary would press Putin on a deal offered to the Russians last week to share benefits of the system such as data and possibly technology.
But the Pentagon intends to move forward whatever the response, the official said.
“We’re going to continue to make this effort with Russia but we’re also very clear, whether Russia cooperates with us or not is really up to Russia,” the official said on Sunday.
Washington wants to place 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and radar in the Czech Republic, at a cost of $3.5 billion.
U.S. officials cast the issue in technical, not political, terms and argue the science is simple. The systems Washington wants to put in Poland and the Czech Republic cannot be used to defeat a Russian missile, they say.
But Russians voice both technical and strategic problems with U.S. plans.
Some Russian officials have argued the sites are so close to Russia’s borders that they could harm its security. Some also say the United States could eventually equip the sites with offensive weapons aimed at Russia.
Russian officials say they support exploring a collective missile system that would protect against rogue states, but are annoyed that Washington has gone ahead unilaterally.
Missile defense is only one sign of deteriorating relations between Washington and Moscow.
While the United States has made accusations that Russia is rolling back democracy and trying to revive past imperialism, Moscow charges Washington with acting unilaterally and meddling in its domestic affairs.
Russia and the United States have different approaches to Iran’s nuclear program, which the West suspects is to develop atomic weapons and Tehran says is to generate power. A Russian contractor is building Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant.
Washington also criticizes Russia for selling anti-aircraft missile systems to Iran, saying it undermines regional security.
The U.S. defense secretary will travel to Poland and Germany to discuss missile defense after his talks in Moscow.