The United States and Russia have agreed to hold special cabinet-level talks in an effort to resolve a dispute over U.S. plans to put elements of a missile defense system in central Europe. Russia contends the U.S. plan would undercut its strategic deterrence. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.
A senior State Department official says Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates will meet with their Russian counterparts later this year in an effort to defuse tensions over U.S. missile defense plans.
Russia has strongly objected to the Bush administration plan to put missile interceptors in Poland and a related radar system in the Czech Republic, which are intended to counter missile firings from Iran or other Middle East "rogue states."
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who alleges the U.S. system could negate Russia's strategic missile deterrence, escalated the dispute last week by saying Moscow would suspend its role in the treaty concluded at the end of the Cold War limiting conventional forces in Europe.
In a talk with reporters, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried said the United States has agreed to a Russian proposal for the unusual "two-plus-two" meetings of foreign and defense ministers, which are tentatively planned for September.
He said the talks may be expanded to also include White House National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and his Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov.
The Bush administration says the plan to put ten interceptor missiles in Poland could in no way counter Russia's huge arsenal of long-range strategic missiles.
It also rejects the notion advanced by Moscow that the facilities planned for Poland and the Czech Republic are precursors of a larger anti-missile system.
Fried, who accompanied Defense Secretary Gates to Moscow last month, said Russian concerns appear based on a misunderstanding of the limitations and capability of the envisaged system.
He stressed the Bush administration is sincere in its efforts to allay Russian concerns, including an open invitation to Moscow to take part in the program:
"Our answer is to offer cooperation with the Russians, bilaterally through the NATO-Russia council, and to be completely transparent in everything we do. That's the right answer. Partly because we're serious about working with the Russians, it would not be a concession on our part, it would actually be a good thing, to work with the Russians," Fried said. "So we mean it and we will continue to offer that cooperation. Our offers remain on the table."
Fried said he believes opposition to the missile defense plan elsewhere in Europe is softening amid a U.S. lobbying campaign to explain the purpose of the envisaged system and the threat seen from Iran.
He also said he expects that opposition will recede over time in the U.S. Congress where a key subcommittee voted this week to cut, by half, an administration request for more than $300 million for the program next year.
Some members of Congress accused the Bush administration of trying to rush an unproven system into operation, but Fried says it is prudent to get the program moving before the expected Iranian threat materializes.
"It isn't so much of a rush as it is a movement in a deliberate way to get this program on track, so that there is something fielded by the time we estimate the Iranians might have this kind of capability," he said. "You don't want to have them develop the capability and then only begin to develop your system."
Formal negotiations over the project with Poland and the Czech Republic have not yet begun and U.S. officials say it could take five years to have the proposed systems in place.
In congressional testimony Thursday, Fried cited intelligence estimates that Iran, which the U.S. believes is trying to develop nuclear weapons, will have long-range missiles by 2015.
He said multi-national diplomacy to dissuade Iran from continuing its nuclear program offers the best course and may succeed. But he said if it fails, the administration has a responsibility to defend the American people and U.S. allies.