Rice Says Russia More Open on Missiles

By: AP
By: AP

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) -- Russia has signaled a new openness toward a U.S. missile defense program for Eastern Europe, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Friday.

The missile defense plan angered Russia, which has seen it as a Western provocation at its doorstep. Moscow's interest prompted Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates to make last-minute plans to visit Russia next week.

Rice said she would not go so far as to say that Russia's opposition to the plan had diminished, but she said the Russians have recently expressed enough interest in certain aspects of the latest U.S. proposal that it was worth setting up a face-to-face meeting.

"In private we've had good discussions with the Russians," Rice said.

Speaking to reporters during a Latin American trip, the top U.S. diplomat declined to say which aspects of the program would be the focus of the Russia talks. Gates and Rice went to Moscow last fall to present several ideas intended to encourage Russian cooperation and make the program easier for the Kremlin to accept.

They got a chilly reception from President Vladimir Putin and senior Russian officials at the time, but lower-level officials have been meeting since then and have apparently made some progress.

"We thought that there had been enough interest shown ... that it might be worth Bob Gates and I going out to see whether or not we can clarify and develop some of the ideas that we have put on the table when we were in Moscow the last time," Rice said.

The United States and Russia have wrangled over terms for Russian monitoring of planned missile and radar sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, both former Soviet satellite states.

In December, Russia's foreign minister accused the U.S. of backtracking on monitoring proposals, but the two nations have apparently come closer to a deal.

U.S. officials have refused to spell out their reasons for optimism, but State Department spokesman Sean McCormack noted this week that the two Cabinet secretaries have considerable latitude to cut deals. Their schedule is intentionally flexible to allow for the possibility of lengthy negotiating sessions in Moscow.

The U.S. says the installations in Poland and the Czech Republic - now NATO members - would counter a looming Iranian threat or potential threats from states such as North Korea. Moscow disputes Washington's contention and says it believes the real aim is to weaken Russia.

Rice and Gates will also meet separately with outgoing President Putin and his hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medvedev. Those meetings are part of a U.S. outreach meant to gauge Medvedev's independence, and get off to the best start possible after a bumpy couple of years with Putin.

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Associated Press Diplomatic Writer Anne Gearan contributed to this report from Washington.

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