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US Defense Chief Visits Moscow to Discuss Missile Defense

23 April 2007

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is trying to ease Russia's strong objections to Washington's plans to extend an anti-missile defense system into Central and Eastern Europe. VOA's Lisa McAdams reports Gates is meeting with Russian officials in Moscow.

U.S. officials want to deploy the anti-missile shield in Poland, the Czech Republic, and a third, unidentified nation in the Caucasus, to guard Europe, including Russia, against potential threats from so-called rogue states like Iran and North Korea.

Russian officials have not rejected the plan outright, but they have expressed strong reservations that include a promise to counter the plan, unless closely consulted.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gave a good indication of Russia's wariness, saying the U.S. plan creates risks for Russia and may, in his words, split Europe.

Lavrov is calling for open discussions on the issue between the United States, Russia, and European Union, and adds that he hopes this week's scheduled meeting of the NATO-Russia council in Oslo will include talks about the missile-defense plans.

The talks Thursday in Oslo will be the highest-level forum yet to discuss the shield, which is expected to be operational by 2013.

While in Moscow, Mr. Gates is scheduled to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin and Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov. He earlier held talks with Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, who reaffirmed Russia's position that deployment of U.S. missile defense elements in Europe is, as he put it, a "destabilizing factor."

But VOA asked the Director of the Heritage Foundation's Moscow office, Yevgeni Volk, if there is something deeper to Russia's objections.

"The problem is that East European countries are still regarded in Moscow as a part of the Post-Soviet space, where Russia should have special interests, special positions," said Volk. "And any attempt by the western nations - NATO, the United States - to strengthen their political and military influence in this region is interpreted by Russia as a direct threat and challenge to Russian national interests."

Analyst Volk says Russia is also worried that if the shield is put into place, it later could be expanded further into post-Soviet territory, weakening Russia's strategic and political influence.

U.S. officials have said repeatedly that the system is not aimed against Russia and that cooperation is in both nation's interests.

Secretary Gates next travels to Warsaw for talks with Polish leaders. He also plans a stop in Berlin to confer with German officials, who have said that all of Europe should be covered under the system and that Russia must be more involved in setting it up.

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