Gates, Rice Arrive in Russia to Discuss European Missile Defense
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
MOSCOW, March 17, 2008 Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice landed here today for two days of talks with their Russian counterparts aimed at gaining ground on key issues that could forge ahead a missile defense plan for all of Europe.
Speaking to reporters during the flight, Gates said a full range of topics is on the table, including economic relationships, counterterrorism and arms sales. But on top on the agenda is locking in some type of commitment by Russia for the U.S. plan to post defensive missiles in Europe, the secretary said.
The United States wants to base missile defense interceptors in Poland and radar in the Czech Republic. Russian senior officials have expressed fears the system could be used against their country. U.S. officials want to extend the zone of coverage for the potential long-range missile threat from Iran or others in the region.
Implementing the plan has turned into a four-way negotiation, with the United States juggling each country’s domestic and political sensitivities.
“At some point, the Russians are going to have to decide whether they want to be true partners, which we’re offering, or whether this is just all a sham game on their part to stall the whole deal,” Gates said.
Gates traveled to the Czech Republic and Poland in April to discuss the plans, and Pentagon officials have said they are close to reaching an agreement. But key to the agreement is garnering Russia’s support.
“I think that they both will be very interested in what goes on in Moscow,” Gates said. “Obviously, if we reached an agreement with the Russians that involves reciprocity and their willingness not to oppose these sites, that would have … some influence on those governments.”
Gates also discussed the plans with Russian President Vladimir Putin in April. Since then, U.S. and Russian experts have met in Washington, Paris and Moscow to discuss details of the plans.
In October, Gates and Rice met with Putin, Defense Minister Anatoliy Eduardovich Serdyukov and Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov at Putin’s residence outside of Moscow. Putin opposed the plan then, but Gates said he has since heard that the Russian president may have reconsidered his position.
“We’ve gotten information back that President Putin found the proposals that Secretary Rice and I put on the table interesting, attractive,” Gates said. But, he added, Putin and other Russian leaders apparently now believe the United States has since backed off of the proposals. This is part of the reason Gates and Rice wanted a face-to-face meeting with Putin and President-elect Dmitry Medvedev.
“We will elaborate on the proposals that we made and make it clear we haven’t walked back from what we proposed,” he said.
In fact, Gates said, that is why he and Rice traveled here, as opposed to hosting the talks in Washington.
“Obviously, anything that is agreed is going to have to be agreed by President Putin (and) potentially by President-elect Medvedev, and I think that it was (Secretary Rice’s) and my calculation that if we were in Moscow and that communication line was a short one, the potential for making progress might be enhanced,” Gates said.
The secretary said there is potential for progress in the missile defense talks, but he was cautious about expressing optimism that any deal would be sealed during the visit.
“I think that I wouldn’t get too enthusiastic at this point,” he said. “We’re here to make an effort, and we’ll see what we can do. But we’re going to have to see some give on the Russian side at some point.”
Officials built flexibility into the schedule to allow Gates and Rice to stay over tomorrow night, should the talks continue into the next day.
Key in the U.S. proposal is an agreement not to make the missiles operational unless Iran flight-tests its missiles. Gates said he already has discussed this with Putin, but that he would not give Russia “veto power” over enabling the system’s capabilities.
“When we see flight testing that leads us to believe the Iranians are close to developing a capability to hit our allies in Europe, that would be the point in which we would operationalize the sites,” he said.
Of concern to the Poles and Czechs is the amount of related Russian involvement, data sharing and presence in their countries, both former Soviet satellite states. U.S. officials have offered that the countries share data from radar equipment for early-warning information and threat analysis. To ease the fears of the Czechs and Poles, Russia would have to basically give as much as it gets, Gates said.
“Clearly, reciprocity is hugely important,” the secretary said. “If there are going to be Russians in the Czech Republic and Poland, there need to be Czechs and Poles in Russia at these sites. If we’re going to talk about transparency, the transparency has got to work both ways.”
U.S. and Russian officials already have discussed that the plan would necessitate limited presence as well as operations out of respective embassies.
Gates emphasized that U.S. officials here won’t agree to anything involving the Czech or Polish governments without first discussing it with their officials.
“It’s very much a four-way negotiation in the sense that the Poles and the Czechs have certain red lines that they are very concerned (about), … and we’re sensitive to those red lines. And we will be sensitive to them when we are talking to the Russians,” he said.
Gates called the U.S. efforts to accommodate Russia’s concerns “very forward-leaning” and said he is taking nothing new to these talks. It is time now, he said, for the Russians to ante up.
“We’re willing to explain (the proposals) further, talk more about how they might be implemented, but my view is that we’ve put a lot on the table, and now it’s time for them to reciprocate,” the secretary said.
“I’d say that we have worked very hard to try and accommodate the Russians’ concerns and to assure them that this missile defense is not aimed against them, and … to go back to Ronald Reagan’s original offer and basically say, ‘We would welcome them as partners in missile defense,’” Gates said.
Gates said any advances made in the two countries’ mutual interests would serve as a foundation for the next administrations to build on.