Russia had a short answer Tuesday for President Bush’s top national security advisers who came to ask for detente in the simmering argument over a planned U.S. missile shield at Russia’s doorstep. “Nyet.” Or maybe, “Not yet.”
The United States and Russia got no closer to settling their public differences over U.S. plans that Russia sees as a potential threat and a turf battle over influence in nations once under the Soviet thumb.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he will take a closer look at U.S. proposals meant to allay Russian fears, but added that the best way to end the disagreement would be to scrap the plan for placing missile interceptors in Poland and a tracking radar in the Czech Republic.
“We’ve leaned very far forward in this in an effort to provide reassurance,” but the United States plans to go ahead, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said following two days of talks with President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials.
The Russians promised to look over written U.S. offers for cooperation, a sign perhaps that they are resigned to eventually accepting the U.S. plan.
“Since the U.S. is going to carry this out, those proposals that we are expecting to receive on paper today seemed to us, as I said, important and useful for the minimization of our concerns,” Lavrov said.
'They listened carefully'
During a brief greeting witnessed by reporters Monday, Putin did not mention U.S. plans for the missile shield, a marked contrast from his vehement opposition when he met in October with Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who returned to explore whether U.S. concessions have softened Putin’s stance.
“I would say they listened very carefully,” Gates told reporters Tuesday. “President Putin took extensive notes last night and there was a lot done during the day today. That said, the full range of what we are now prepared to offer to discuss with the Russians is really just now after the day’s talks being put down on paper.”
There is no deadline, but Gates said he expected an answer “reasonably quickly.”
Gates said the U.S. side spelled out more clearly some details of the proposals it made in the fall, which the Russians initially agreed to study and later rejected as not addressing their main concerns.
On Monday Gates gave as an example the U.S. suggestion that Russia be allowed to monitor the activities in Poland and the Czech Republic. He said the Russians initially thought this meant they would be limited to monitoring through their diplomatic presence in the Polish and Czech capitals. Gates said that was clarified to mean the Russians would be permitted a physical — but likely not continuous — presence at the missile defense sites, and that the Russians appeared to regard this more favorably.
At first the Polish and Czech governments objected to having Russian monitors on their soil. But Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said Tuesday that his government would be open to discussing an arrangement.
“From our side there is a readiness to talk seriously about what this monitoring — that would give our neighbors a sense of security — could look like,” said Tusk, who noted that he spoke to both Bush and Putin about the idea.
Gates has stressed that no arrangement for Russian monitoring would be agreed to unless it was accepted first by the Polish and Czech governments, whose history with the former Soviet Union makes this a touchy subject.
The Americans proposed the visit to give a formal framework to numerous issues from economics to foreign affairs where the United States and Russia have common or overlapping interests. Gates and Rice carried a proposed document that lays out areas of agreement reached under Putin and Bush, with an eye to the coming political transitions in both nations. Putin steps down as president in May, and Bush leaves office next January.
The document, which was not released, also lists the trouble spots, among them the independence of Kosovo, which the U.S. supports over strong Russian objection, and the planned missile shield.
Theoretical future threats
The U.S. says the shield is protection against a theoretical future threat from Iran, which already has some missile capability, or from North Korea, which has tested long-range missiles but has agreed to give up nuclear weapons.
Rice made a point of scheduling one meeting that spotlights a main example of U.S.-Russia tension — American disappointment over Putin’s consolidation of political and economic power in the Kremlin. She and Gates had breakfast with leaders outside government, including some who have been publicly critical of Putin.
“I’m very much looking forward to your thoughts about the political situation where and how the transition in this country is taking place,” she said at the beginning of the private breakfast. Rice also said she wanted to know what the United States could do to “make this a more open and participatory political system” and encourage economic and entrepreneurial development.
Among those Rice and Gates saw was longtime political opposition figure Grigory Yavlinsky, head of the liberal Yabloko Party. He was among opposition candidates who pulled out of Russia’s presidential contest in protest, leaving a nearly clear field for Putin’s protege, Dmitry Medvedev, who won easily earlier this month.
U.S. officials said they did not expect a breakthrough on this trip, and neither did the Russians.
“I, for one, have found the discussions useful. I have found them constructive,” Rice said.
She said she was glad the Russian side had agreed to look at the shield proposal more closely, though she acknowledged: “We have work to do.”