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U.S.-Russian missile talks further strain ties

Two rounds of talks on a Russian proposal for missile defense cooperation with the U.S. have failed to narrow differences that have strained relations, officials from both countries say.
Russian soldiers stand near the Qabala radar station northwest of Baku
Russian soldiers stand near the  radar station in June.Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Two rounds of talks on a Russian proposal for missile defense cooperation with the U.S. have failed to narrow differences that have strained relations, officials from both countries say.

The U.S. hopes technical experts who plan to visit a Russian-operated radar in Azerbaijan on Tuesday can help jump-start the talks with new ideas for cooperation.

Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, has suggested the countries could share the mammoth installation and a second radar under construction in southern Russia as part of U.S. efforts to defend against the potential threat from Iranian missiles.

Putin surprised the U.S. with the proposal in June. It followed months of criticism of U.S. negotiations to install 10 missile interceptors in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic, both former Soviet satellites.

The disagreement over missile defense has become a high-priority issue raised repeatedly in direct talks between Putin and President Bush.

The United States says the European system is intended to counter Iranian missiles that could be aimed at Europe or U.S. territory. Russia contends the system also could be used against Russian missiles and threatens its nuclear deterrence.

To explore ways of resolving the differences, Bush and Putin agreed to a series of talks led by Assistant Secretary of State John Rood and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak. The two sides met in Washington in July and again in Paris last week.

The U.S. says it hopes Russia will contribute to U.S. plans to build a missile shield in Europe that would include the Czech and Polish bases. Russia says it will not help the U.S. counter an Iranian threat unless the European plans are canceled.

'A completely different understanding'
Following the Paris talks, Rood said the U.S. had offered proposals on how the two sides could work together. Those ideas, however, did not deal with the disagreement over the terms of cooperation, said a U.S. official who works on missile defense issues and spoke on condition of anonymity.

"I think we are both in the same place as we were before," said the official, who was not authorized to speak for attribution.

A Russian official, who also requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, agreed that the two sides were far apart.

"Nothing has changed in the U.S. position during the talks," said the official. "There is still a completely different understanding of the substance of President Putin's proposal."

The U.S. hopes Tuesday's meeting at the Azerbaijan radar site will spark ideas for a third round of talks to be held in Moscow next month.

The Bush administration is interested in the radars that Putin has offered, but as an additional asset for the system planned for Central Europe, not as a substitute. The radar in Gabala, Azerbaijan, is of a type that could not perform the same function as the one planned for the Czech Republic.

The U.S.-built radar would track a missile after it had been detected by other means. The missile defense system also would need other radars to detect missile launches. While the U.S. has some of those capabilities, the Gabala facility's proximity to Iran could help the system identify missile trajectories earlier.

"What the Gabala radar would help you do is acquire targets," said Theodore Postol, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Russia believes Iran threat not imminent
Putin has proposed a different idea: using the radars as a way of monitoring the development of Iran's missile program. While the U.S. estimates Iran could become capable of launching an intercontinental missile by about 2015, Russia believes Iran is decades away.

According to Glen Howard, president of the Jamestown Foundation, a national security policy institute in Washington, the Gabala facility has eavesdropping capabilities beyond its massive radar.

"The radar is Russia's eyes and ears in the Middle East," he said.

But the U.S. says it will not consider delaying its European plans while the two sides monitor what the administration consider a clear threat from Iran.

"The United States is saying `Sure, we will talk to you, but we are going to continue building while we talk,'" said retired Army Lt. Gen. Robert Gard, a military fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. "That is not a position that will lead to much progress."