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Putin snubs US on joint missile defense

Rice, Gates pitch unusual partnership

MOSCOW - Two of President Bush's most senior Cabinet members pitched an unusual new missile defense partnership yesterday to Russian President Vladimir Putin, but they received a firm public rebuke as the Kremlin made clear it remains deeply skeptical of the administration's foreign policy goals.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates spent the day in talks with Putin and their counterparts trying to forge common ground on issues that have divided the two countries and led to the coolest relations since the Cold War.

US officials said that as part of their private presentation, they laid out new details of a plan to cooperate with Russia in jointly developing a missile defense system that could protect Europe against possible nuclear-tipped missiles from Iran.

But the only major point of agreement yesterday was for the two sides' defense ministers and foreign ministers to meet jointly in six months in Washington, part of the so-called two-on-two process set up by Bush and Putin when they met in July in Kennebunkport, Maine.

From the time they arrived yesterday at Putin's dacha in the suburbs of Moscow, the two Cabinet secretaries seemed on the defensive.

Putin kept Gates and Rice waiting for more than a half hour, then greeted them warmly before launching into a harangue about US plans to set up key facilities for the missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic.

The Russian president, who likes to keep opponents guessing, also introduced an issue that American officials had indicated would not be on the agenda: Putin threatened to pull out of a long-standing treaty, known as INF, eliminating intermediate- and short-range nuclear weapons because it covers only Russia and the United States.

Putin seemed to mock the US missile defense plan with biting language.

"We may decide someday to put missile defense systems on the moon, but before we get to that we may lose a chance for agreement because of you implementing your own plans," he told Rice and Gates, according to an Associated Press translation of his remarks in Russian.

Putin also warned the United States against "forcing forward your previous agreements with Eastern European countries."

Rice and Gates sat impassively through the monologue for about eight minutes, with Rice in particular looking annoyed. When it was their turn to speak, though, both sought to accentuate agreement.

Gates, raising the specter of a threat he said faces both Russia and the United States, told Putin, "We have an ambitious agenda of security issues that concern both of us, including, as you suggest, development of missile systems by others in the neighborhood - I would say in particular, Iran."

US officials said afterward that the private meeting with Putin was much more businesslike and friendly and that they are aware of his concerns about the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty. They said the idea of abrogating the 1987 treaty did not come up in their private sessions.

One official said the Russian president seemed intrigued by the new US ideas on missile defense, which include steps aimed at allaying Kremlin concerns that the system seeks to undermine Russia's nuclear deterrent.

Gates said one idea presented would be to allow Russian personnel to in some way monitor the activity at new missile defense facilities. He and other officials offered few details.

Still, the more testy public sessions underscored how US-Russian relations have taken a turn for the worse in recent years.

Russian distrust of American intentions seems to have grown along with US anger over Putin's steps to curb democratic institutions and possibly extend his hold on power beyond the end of his term next year. Yesterday's sessions were an effort to repair that breach, but it was uncertain how much they succeeded.

The differences were on display when Gates and Rice met reporters later in the day, after the private session with Putin and a separate meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov.

Lavrov suggested that the Russians don't see the threat from Iran the same way the United States does and said that he considers American efforts to impose unilateral sanctions to be unproductive.

Rice said the United States has no intention of halting its efforts to pressure Iran by squeezing its financial system. US officials also rebuffed Russian proposals to freeze the negotiations with former Soviet satellites over plans to put a radar system in the Czech Republic and 10 interceptors in Poland.

Despite the discord yesterday, senior US officials said they were pleased with the sessions, saying that the two sides had narrowed their differences on some issues. They said they were particularly hopeful of establishing a new joint "architecture" for missile defense to protect against the possibility of Iran gaining a nuclear weapon.

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