MUNICH - Without forecasting any breakthroughs, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said yesterday that he believes Russia wants to resolve sensitive security disputes with the United States, including proposed missile defenses in central Europe.
Gates also predicted Moscow would "react cautiously" if, as expected, Kosovo declares independence from Russian ally Serbia this month. Russia opposes Kosovo's independence, claiming it would set a precedent worldwide. The United States and many European nations support Kosovo's statehood.
"My own view is, and it's just a personal opinion, that I think that the Russians - first of all, they are not going to like it [independence for Kosovo] - but I think that they will react cautiously," Gates told reporters after a private meeting with Sergei Ivanov, the Russian first deputy prime minister.
Asked by a reporter if that meant he did not expect Moscow to make "too big of a fuss," Gates replied, "I didn't say that. I just said that I thought they would react cautiously."
Gates and Ivanov met during a break in an international security conference. Both were scheduled to deliver speeches today. Gates said his would focus on the challenge of stabilizing Afghanistan and would emphasize that Islamic extremism in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region is a serious threat to Europe.
Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leadership has said that it will declare independence from Serbia "in a matter of days," but hasn't specified a date. Serbia regards the province as the cradle of its statehood, and expressions of nationalist anger have increased as the independence declaration approaches.
Gates said he and Ivanov did not discuss Kosovo, but did talk about other issues, including the US plan for placing missile interceptors in Poland and tracking radar in the Czech Republic.
This past week, Russian Foreign minister Sergey Lavrov criticized the missile defense proposal. He said in an interview published in a Polish newspaper that the US was expanding its missile defense system from American territory to northeast Asia and now to European nations close to Russia.
This, he said, amounted to an American attempt to encircle its former Cold War adversary.
"All of it is concentrating around our borders," Lavrov was quoted as saying.
Nonetheless, Gates told reporters he is convinced that US-Russian talks on such issues are worthwhile.
"I think that regardless of what's said in public, I think there is still an interest [in Moscow] in pursuing the dialogue, and we are doing that," he said.
In a brief interview with American reporters after his meeting with Gates, Ivanov gave no indication of acrimony.
"We discussed a lot of serious issues, keeping in mind that we still have a lot in common," particularly with regard to limiting the spread of nuclear weapons and the missiles used to deliver them, Ivanov said.
The missile defense issue is particularly difficult. Russia has harshly criticized the plan as threatening Russian security. Washington has portrayed the Polish and Czech sites as key to defending Europe and the United States from a potential long-range missile attack by Iran, which currently has no such missiles.
The United States is negotiating with the Polish and Czech governments over stationing missile defense components on their territory. At yesterday's conference, Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said the matter ultimately would be a decision for Poland, not Russia.