Moscow (CNSNews.com) - The Kremlin responded cautiously Monday to a mission by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates aimed at convincing Russia to accept Washington's European missile defense plans.
President Vladimir Putin welcomed Gates but refrained from supporting the U.S. offer to cooperate on missile defense, including sharing data from the system. The two sides merely agreed that experts would continue discussing the U.S. proposals, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak told journalists here.
The U.S. plans to deploy anti-missile interceptors in Poland and related radar scanners in the Czech Republic. The former Warsaw Pact nations are now members of NATO and the European Union - an ongoing sore point for Russia.
Also on Monday, Putin had a telephone conversation with President Bush, with both leaders voicing satisfaction regarding increased bilateral contacts ahead of the forthcoming G8 summit in Germany, the Kremlin press service said in a statement.
The two governments have been increasingly at odds over the missile defense initiative, NATO's eastward expansion, and Russian domestic policies that have drawn fire in the West.
Gates' visit was overshadowed by news of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin's death.
Yeltsin, 76, died in the Russian capital, after reportedly suffering a heart attack. Gates conveyed U.S. condolences to Russian leaders. Yeltsin's return to the headlines came as a reminder that Russia and the U.S. maintained considerably warmer relations during the former president's tenure.
Gates reiterated that the planned missile defense system in Central Europe was not a proposal related to Russia but was intended to prevent potential threats from the Middle East and Asia.
After meeting with his Russian counterpart, Anatoly Serdyukov, Gates said he was aware of Russia's concerns and confirmed U.S. readiness to cooperate with Moscow on a number of issues related to missile defense.
Russian officials remain unconvinced. Serdyukov after the talks described the missile defense plans as "a serious destabilizing factor capable of having a considerable impact on regional and global security."
Gates responded by stressing that Russia and the U.S. would both win from such a partnership, while a failure to cooperate would be disadvantageous to both.
Russia maintains that the anti-missile shield aims to protect against its own nuclear arsenal and thus shifts the regional strategic balance in favor of the West. China also opposes U.S. missile defense, citing the same concern.
Putin has repeatedly warned that the U.S. plan could result in a new arms race, and Russian officials note the sites' proximity to its borders. They charge that the U.S. could eventually equip the sites with offensive weapons aimed at Russia.
Russia and the U.S. also remain divided over approaches to Iran's nuclear program - a program the U.S. and its allies believe is a cover for a bid to develop nuclear weapons.
Russia, which is building Iran's nuclear power facilities, held talks with Iranian officials at the weekend in a bid to resolve a financial dispute over the project.
In September 2006, Russia agreed to supply nuclear fuel to the reactor by March 2007, and the plant was expected to go on stream by September. Earlier this year, however, Russia alleged that Iran failed to pay on time and Russian officials said no fuel would be supplied until the row was sorted out.
On Sunday, Iranian government spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said Russia was losing credibility as a result of delays in completing the plant at Bushehr.
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