U.S. Fails to Break Missile Defense Impasse

APCondoleezza Rice listening as Sergei Lavrov speaks during talks Tuesday.
A day after President Vladimir Putin raised hopes that a breakthrough was in sight, high-level talks between Russia and the United States on missile-defense and arms treaties ended Tuesday without agreement.

Both sides did, however, vow to keep talking as the countries headed toward changes in leadership.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday that U.S. plans for a missile-defense shield in Central Europe still posed a threat to Russian security.

"The U.S. has made a proposal that we believe to be a risk," Lavrov said. "President Putin has proposed an alternative that will not pose a risk."

Lavrov's comments to reporters came after more than six hours of talks between him and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Gates said the United States had reiterated its assurances that the proposed missile shield did not pose a threat to Russia and that the U.S. side had "leaned very far forward" toward compromise. He added that he thought Putin and his Russian colleagues had found these ideas "useful and important."

On Monday, Rice and Gates met with Putin and President-elect Dmitry Medvedev in the Kremlin. Rice later called the talks a positive start, and Lavrov said they had set the "right tone."

Serdyukov offered some very guarded hope Tuesday, saying that while the Russian position was unchanged, he had heard "a number of measures" and looked forward to receiving them in writing. He said a decision could only be made after defense personnel had had the opportunity to examine the proposals.

One offer, made by the United States last fall, would let Russian officials inspect the planned anti-missile installations -- a radar site in the Czech Republic and a missile base in Poland. Gates said a number of the proposed measures required "host country approval and reciprocity."

Lavrov said the talks had also failed to produce an agreement on how to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, a Cold War-era agreement limiting long-range nuclear weapons, which expires in 2009.

Moscow has proposed that the sides commit to a full-fledged successor treaty, while Washington favors a more modest, slimmed-down version.

Rice, meanwhile, said only that the United States had addressed the desire to have a post-START framework.

Rice said there was still work to be done and that the two sides had agreed to spell out their relations in a joint document. The paper, she said, would not be a treaty, but a foundation for the future development of mutual ties.

It was unclear Tuesday how the paper was related to a recent letter from U.S. President George Bush to Putin, which apparently also spelled out the proposed basis for future relations.

Putin, who is to be replaced by Medvedev in the Kremlin in May, on Monday called the letter "a serious document" that could improve ties with Washington. Bush's second and final presidential term ends in January.

The atmosphere for Rice and Gates' third trip to Russia in less than a year was markedly more relaxed and cheerful than last fall, when the two top U.S. officials received a chilly reception from Putin.

There were smiles and friendly exchanges between Rice and Lavrov on Tuesday morning when both nations' delegations sat down in a lavish hall in the Foreign Ministry's mansion near Patriarch's Ponds.

Rice, who referred to her Russian colleague as Sergei, acknowledged that the U.S. side had committed blunders after the talks in October 2007.

"There was some lack of clarity between what we said here and what was later in the paper we sent [to Moscow]," she said.

She explained that the confusion might have been caused by technicalities: "Perhaps, if one moves from a conceptual level to [one] of detail, things get lost in translation," she said.

"Bob Gates was able to clarify and enrich things since last time, and our Russian colleagues asked us to write down a whole range of measures," she said. "We will try to do that this evening and get this paper to our colleagues."

Part of the lighter atmosphere Tuesday came from some chuckles in the cramped press briefing room as Rice repeatedly forgot to pause while speaking so that interpreters could translate her remarks into Russian.

"I keep forgetting," she said in English and Russian, burying her face in her hands. "It's hopeless."

There was no mention of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, which was also on the agenda after Russia suspended its membership last year, frustrated that the revised treaty hadn't been ratified by governments in the West.

One of the reported goals of the visit was to soothe relations between Washington and Moscow just two weeks before a crucial NATO summit in Bucharest. Putin has accepted an invitation to the summit, which will involve a discussion of what could be the initial phase of the alliance's eastward expansion. Moscow strongly objects to the accession of Ukraine and Georgia, two former Soviet republics that it sees lying in its sphere of influence.

Lavrov said Tuesday that Moscow would soon announce whether it would allow the delivery of military goods by air and land across its territory to NATO forces fighting in Afghanistan.

"In response to such requests from Brussels, our Defense Ministry, together with the Foreign Ministry, are now in negotiations, and I believe that the result will be known soon."

Russia let France and Germany transport military goods to Afghanistan at the height of the 2001 military campaign against the Taliban, but Moscow has been reluctant to allow a broader deal to supply the current 43,000-strong NATO contingent.