Putin on the attack over US missile defence

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The Independent Online

The Russian President has stepped up pressure on the Bush administration to freeze plans for an anti-missile defence shield to be located in Europe, by threatening to pull out of a Cold War-era nuclear treaty and warning that the US determination to press ahead risked harming relations with Moscow.

With the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, and the US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, sitting opposite him during a meeting at his dacha at the start of two days of US-Russia negotiations, President Vladimir Putin surprised his guests by embarking on a spirited monologue in which he said, somewhat cryptically: "We may decide some day to put missile defence 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 also warned that Moscow might pull out of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which bars the US and Russia from deploying medium-range nuclear missiles, unless the pact is expanded to cover other countries. He did not mention other states by name, but his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, later said Moscow had in mind India and Pakistan which are "closer to our borders than to the US".

Mr Peskov stressed that Mr Putin, who arrived 40 minutes late, had not been confrontational in his remarks, and that "our joint goal is to take measures for international security, and it would be wise for all of us to think of modernising the INF treaty".

However, during five hours of negotiations, both sides remained as far apart as ever. Russia has steadfastly opposed the US plans in the belief that they are a strategic threat to its territory, while the US says the shield would be a defence against missiles fired by Iran or North Korea.

Ms Rice rebuffed the call to freeze the US plans for a radar station in the Czech Republic and interceptor missiles in Poland as part of the defensive shield. Both are former Soviet-bloc states that have become US allies since the collapse of the USSR. "We will work during this time to address Russian concerns ... We believe we can address those concerns and we are prepared to do it," Ms Rice said.

She added the US had brought "conceptual" ideas to Moscow in hopes of overcoming Russian resistance. Mr Gates said one idea is to have Russian personnel stationed at each missile defence site to improve coordination and openness with Moscow. But the Russians were unimpressed.

The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, who took part in the negotiations with the Defence Minister, Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, said: "We see two serious problems with these proposals," explaining there were disagreements on the nature of the missile threat to Europe, and the Bush administration's refusal to freeze the deployment.

Mr Serdyukov said: The principal thing to which we did not agree today is the deployment of anti-missile elements that have an anti-Russian character and which are to be placed in Europe."

Russia is offering the use of a radar station in Azerbaijan for the missile defence project but that received a cool response in Washington. In recent months, a bullish Mr Putin has caused alarm in European capitals by issuing a series of threats challenging the arms control architecture that has been in place since Cold War days. He has notably threatened to re-target Russian missiles on Europe.

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