moscow -- Top Russian officials on Friday publicly rejected a new proposal personally presented by two senior U.S. Cabinet secretaries aimed at persuading Moscow to withdraw its objections to a missile defense system in Eastern Europe.
Moscow’s rebuff was made in substance and tone, with President Vladimir V. Putin coming close to openly ridiculing the antimissile system and the Russian foreign minister saying the U.S. had failed to make a case that Europe faces a long-range missile threat from Iran.
Putin, speaking at the start of a meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates at his dacha on the outskirts of Moscow, warned the Bush administration against attempting to assert its influence over Eastern Europe, saying it could irreparably harm U.S.-Russian relations.
“We can sometime in the future decide that some antimissile system should be established somewhere on the moon, but before we reach such arrangements, we will lose the opportunity of fixing” other bilateral disagreements, Putin said.
Putin’s spokesman later said the Russian president had not intended to be confrontational, and U.S. officials briefed on the Putin meeting insisted it was cordial.
But the high-level summit appeared rife with diplomatic slights.
Putin moved the meeting to his dacha from the Kremlin just hours before it was to be held. It was then formally convened more than 40 minutes after Gates and Rice arrived at the originally appointed time, a delay Putin ascribed to an emergency phone call.
Once the meeting began, Putin unexpectedly lectured Gates and Rice for several minutes in the presence of dozens of local and foreign reporters.
Despite the visible tensions, U.S. officials said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov had welcomed their proposal, which included an invitation for Moscow to directly participate in parts of the antimissile system’s operations. Lavrov also sought further discussions between U.S. and Russian experts on whether the proposal met Moscow’s concerns about the antimissile system, which the Pentagon is proposing to build in the former Warsaw Pact countries of Poland and the Czech Republic.
“I think it’s clear that the Russians are thinking very hard now about what our side brought to the table,” said a senior State Department official involved in the talks.
Rice sought to portray the unusually high-profile talks between the two defense chiefs and two foreign ministers as constructive, and the first in a series intended to narrow the divide between the countries.
Despite Russian demands, however, she flatly asserted that the Bush administration would not freeze its ongoing talks with Poland and the Czech Republic on construction of the missile defense sites. The Pentagon plan would put a missile-tracking radar in the Czech Republic and 10 interceptor missiles in Poland.
Although she acknowledged that Russia had serious objections to the plan, including fears it could be aimed at Russian missiles, Rice said she thought they could be overcome. “We believe we can address those concerns, and we intend to do it,” she said.
The centerpiece of the new U.S. proposal is a program that would greatly expand the planned American system by linking it directly with current Russian radars and, potentially, Moscow’s existing missile defense system, which centers on protecting the country’s capital.
Although U.S. negotiators declined to give specific details, a senior Pentagon official involved in the talks said the plan included allowing both Russian and U.S. personnel to staff the system’s major components to give the Russian military assurance that it could not be converted to shoot down Russian nuclear missiles.
Russia has rejected similar data-sharing and joint-headquarters proposals in the past, but U.S. officials insisted that the new plan went beyond what had been previously offered.
“We put forward some thoughts about the presence of individuals from both sides at sites so that there was complete transparency, both perhaps at the [European] site but also in the United States, and if there are radars at other facilities here in Russia, that there would be a presence there too,” Gates said.
Lavrov said Russian officials would examine the proposal, but said it failed to address one of Moscow’s primary contentions: that Iran does not present a missile threat to Europe or the U.S., making the program unnecessary.
The disagreements over Iranian missile capabilities center on intelligence gathered by the U.S. and presented to Russia over the last four months. The U.S. believes it shows Iran will be able to develop a long-range nuclear missile by 2015, but Moscow disputes those findings. Some critics have accused Russia of caving into Iran because of the countries’ economic ties.
The U.S and Russian defense chiefs and foreign ministers will meet again in Washington in six months.
And while they insisted that progress was made, there was evidence of deterioration in the increasingly frosty bilateral relationship.
In his remarks while meeting with Rice and Gates, Putin raised the prospect of Russia’s withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a Gorbachev-era pact preventingthe U.S. and Russia from deploying short- and medium-range offensive missiles.
Although Putin has raised the issue in the past, the timing and high-profile setting of his warning were symbolic; the INF treaty was not supposed to be on the summit’s agenda.
Putin said Russian withdrawal from INF could come if some of its neighbors, who are developing short-range missiles, are not brought into the treaty’s fold.
The INF pact is a signature Cold War-era agreement that, if abrogated, could further spook voters in Poland and the Czech Republic, both of which could face shifts of Russian forces beyond their eastern borders if Moscow withdrew from the treaty. Voters in both countries already overwhelmingly oppose the missile defense system, according to recent public opinion polling.
Times staff writer James Gerstenzang in Washington contributed to this report.