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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Serdyukov Firm on Missile Defense

APDe Hoop Scheffer, center right, and the Dutch defense minister patting Serdyukov as Gates, right, watches Thursday.
NOORDWIJK, Netherlands -- NATO and Russia appeared to make little progress Thursday in narrowing differences over U.S. plans to install missile defenses in Europe, despite a U.S. offer to delay activating the bases until it has proof of a threat from Iran.

"We cannot agree on what was offered to us and are sticking to our position," Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov told reporters after talks with his NATO counterparts.

He said, however, that talks would continue. "It seems to me that the Americans are starting to better understand our concerns and we welcome that," he said.

The meeting came days after U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that Washington might delay activating the proposed missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic until it has "definitive proof" of a missile threat from Iran.

Gates outlined that proposal at the NATO talks, which Serdyukov later joined. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said the atmosphere of the talks had improved but that there was no breakthrough.

The announcement of a possible delay was aimed at easing Russian opposition to the plan. Moscow says Tehran is decades away from developing missile technology that could threaten Europe or North America and claims that the U.S. bases would undermine Russia's own missile deterrent force.

NATO allies also have differences over the urgency of the need for such defenses. French Defense Minister Herve Morin said European allies generally agreed with the Americans that there was a ballistic threat, "but not necessarily on the imminence of the threat."

Underscoring the continuing tensions between Moscow and the Western allies, two Russian strategic bombers neared the Dutch coastal resort where the ministers were meeting, on an unusual practice run that could be interpreted as a signal to NATO, the Norwegian military said. Norwegian military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel John Espen Lien said two Tu-160 bombers flew a highly unusual course near the Norwegian coast and between Britain and Denmark before turning back about 190 kilometers northwest of the Netherlands. "It could have been a coincidence, but there is also a chance that it was a signal," Lien said by telephone.

NATO officials in Noordwijk said they were not concerned by the flight, saying the Russian planes remained in international airspace and were not considered threatening.

In recent weeks, the United States has made a number of proposals to calm Russian concerns, including the possible delay in activating the sites, an offer to share information from missile tracking radar units and allowing Russian observers at U.S. facilities. "That is a very substantial offer and I can only hope -- and I've seen the first signs of this -- that the Russian Federation will continue this discussion with their American friends in a very constructive atmosphere," de Hoop Scheffer said.

Moscow, however, has given mixed signals. While Serdyukov sounded negative, a senior Kremlin adviser was upbeat. "I think there is a chance we could reach agreement," Sergei Yastrzhembsky, President Vladimir Putin's special envoy to the European Union, told reporters Wednesday evening. He called Gates' offers "the first positive signals."