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Gates Laments Delay in Missile-Defense Agreement With Russia

Defense Secretary Robert Gates today lamented delays in reaching agreement with Russia on a U.S.-led NATO missile defense system, saying a “long history of hostility and wariness” will take time to overcome.

Gates, whose experience with Russia in other government posts dates to the Cold War-era Soviet Union, had hoped to make more progress to surmount Russian opposition to the missile-defense plan before retiring this month.

He commented at the end of two days of talks among the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s defense ministers in Brussels on issues including Afghanistan and Libya. The sessions included the first meeting of defense ministers within the NATO-Russia Council in three years. The council is intended to improve relations between the former Cold War adversaries.

“While I had hoped we would be ready to move ahead on this subject in the NATO-Russia Council, it is clear that we will need more time,” Gates told reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels. “I think the Russians have a long history of hostility and wariness about missile defense, and so I think we just have to keep working at it.”

He said Russian leaders, who have steadfastly opposed the system as potentially weakening their own defenses, have been serious about reaching agreement. He also cited “strong consensus support at the NATO-Russia Council for practical cooperation on missile defense directed against threats from outside Europe, such as Iran, and not against each other.”

Objections in Moscow

President Barack Obama is seeking to overcome objections to the system from leaders in Moscow who have threatened to withdraw from a new strategic nuclear arms agreement with the U.S. The Obama administration won NATO backing last year for the system, which Russian leaders say may blunt the effectiveness of their military deterrence.

Gates said his talks in Brussels with his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, reviewed efforts by their staffs to find ways of cooperating on the missile defense system. The two sides plan to jointly analyze missile threats, and the Russians proposed a combined data center that the Pentagon fleshed out in more detail when Gates visited Moscow in March.

In addition to Serdyukov, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin expressed interest in cooperation during a 2002 meeting when he was president, as has his successor Dmitry Medvedev, Gates said.

“I still think there are those in Russia who are skeptical of our motives,” Gates said today.

The domestic political calendar in Russia may play a role, said Jan Techau, head of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Brussels.

Russian Elections

“I suspect there will be no big moves on any of this until after the Russian presidential elections next year,” Techau said in an interview. “Missile defense may be used as an issue in the elections.”

On Afghanistan, Gates said he warned his NATO and other counterparts against a precipitous withdrawal of troops as they consider how to reduce force numbers this year.

“These gains could be threatened if we do not proceed with the transition to Afghan security lead in a deliberate, organized, and coordinated manner,” Gates said. “Even as the United States begins to draw down next month, I assured my fellow ministers that there will be no rush to the exits on our part -- and we expect the same from our allies.”

Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen sought to signal assurances that alliance members will stay on board with the Afghan mission. He said there will be “no rush to the exits” in the NATO-led International Security Force in Afghanistan.

“ISAF partners will stay committed and see this through,” Rasmussen told reporters in Brussels. “I know that the American administration will take decisions based on the security situation on the ground. This will not be calendar-driven but conditions-based.”

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