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Rice faces storm clouds over missile defense

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hopes to face down increasingly bold Russian opposition to U.S. missile defense plans in Europe and to a U.N. independence plan for Kosovo in talks around the edges of this week’s meeting with NATO foreign ministers.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hopes to face down increasingly bold Russian opposition to U.S. missile defense plans in Europe and to a U.N. independence plan for Kosovo in talks around the edges of this week’s meeting with NATO foreign ministers.

Rice headed to Norway for an informal gathering on Thursday of NATO’s top diplomats, who will also convene the NATO-Russia council. In the meantime, Moscow has stepped up its rhetoric, warning of steps against missile defense supporters and hinting it might resort to a U.N. Security Council veto on Kosovo.

The matters threaten to overshadow internal NATO deliberations on its operations in Afghanistan. Rice will once again press the U.S. case that neither should cause Russia alarm, the State Department said.

The outreach in Oslo will be the latest in Washington’s thus-far fruitless attempts to soothe Moscow, following a trip to Russia this week by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and ahead of a planned Rice visit there next month.

Moscow rebuffs technology-sharing
Russia has repeatedly rejected U.S. overtures on missile defense, including offers to share technology on combatting new threats from the Middle East, notably from Iran, saying it has no interest in cooperating on a program it fears will harm its strategic interests.

Gates, at the close of a three-day trip that included stops in Moscow, Warsaw and Berlin, said Wednesday that the Russian government, while publicly critical of a U.S. plan to install missile defense bases in eastern Europe, is internally conflicted by it.

The Pentagon chief appeared to refer not only to the proposed bases in Poland and the Czech Republic but also to a new offer presented to Moscow last week on ways to work together on strategic missile defense.

“There clearly have to be divisions in Moscow on how to respond, frankly,” Gates said at a joint news conference with German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung. “It doesn’t surprise me.”

He did not cite specific evidence of an internal debate, and Russia’s public statements have been uniformly negative.

Gates said it was at the urging of German Chancellor Angela Merkel that the Bush administration decided to intensify its consultations with Moscow. He said that about two weeks ago Russian President Vladimir Putin asked Bush to send Gates to Moscow for detailed talks.

Opposition to U.S. base plans
In Oslo, Rice is expected to discuss the issue with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

“I think we made a pretty good public case on this, some of the Russians’ statements notwithstanding, but we’re going to continue to work with the Russians as well, or attempt to work with the Russians,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Tuesday.

Russia vehemently opposes U.S. plans to install 10 interceptors in Poland and a missile tracking radar in the Czech Republic, and the Russian military’s chief of general staff warned Tuesday that Moscow could target elements of the system once it was installed.

The Czech Republic and Poland, former members of the defunct Warsaw Pact, are relative NATO newcomers, and Russia sees missile defense sites there as encroaching on its Soviet-era sphere of influence, potentially posing dangers to its own offensive missiles.

Concern about the sites is on the rise in the host countries. Recent polls indicate a majority of both Poles and Czechs are opposed.

U.S. officials have been crisscrossing Europe in an effort to persuade governments to support the missile system.

Rice and Gates, as part of a European lobbying effort, co-signed an article for Thursday’s edition of the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper. The two wrote that, 16 years after the end of the Cold War, U.S., Europe and Russia are facing common security threats.

“One of the most threatening of these challenges is the possibility that a dangerous state will deploy ballistic missiles equipped with nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction, and take our citizens hostage — or inflict worse on them,” read an advance German copy of the article. “Do not deceive yourselves: This is a real threat.”

Kosovo also a trouble spot
While the Bush administration tries to bring Russia around on missile defense, it is also facing stiff resistance from Moscow on a U.N. supervised independence plan for the semiautonomous Serbian province of Kosovo.

A close friend of Serbia, Moscow is hostile to U.N. envoy Marti Ahtisaari’s proposal for Kosovo, which has been under U.N. and NATO administration since a 78-day NATO-led air war that halted a Serb crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists in 1999.

Russia says the plan would set a dangerous precedent for separatists elsewhere, and on Tuesday, a senior Russian diplomat hinted that Russia might veto a U.N. Security Council resolution that would endorse the Ahtisaari plan.

“The threat of using a veto must stimulate the sides to come up with mutually accepted compromises,” Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov said, according to the Interfax news agency.

McCormack noted that Titov had not actually threatened a veto and expressed hope that Russia could be brought onboard to help bring stability to the Balkans as soon as possible

Envoys from Security Council members are now on a fact-finding mission to Kosovo, and a resolution could be brought before the body within the next month, U.S. officials say.