Russian official dismisses U.S. shield cooperation
WARSAW (Reuters) - Russia's foreign minister on Tuesday dismissed a U.S. offer of cooperation in missile defence activities, marking a setback in Bush administration efforts to convince Moscow and allies of plans for a European shield.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia felt it was being handed a fait accompli by Washington and had no interest in participating in the defence plan.
That came despite an attempt on Monday by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates to allay Russian objections to plans for an anti-missile shield in eastern Europe by offering Moscow a chance to cooperate, for example, by sharing data from early warning systems and conducting joint exercises.
"We have the impression that everything has already been decided in Washington," Lavrov told reporters in Luxembourg. "We cannot really see that we could join."
He also warned the U.S. plan, if implemented, "could destabilize the situation in Europe."
Those comments followed Gates' meetings in Moscow, where he received a cool reception from senior leaders, including President Vladimir Putin. It also came as Poland's defence minister said for Warsaw to accept Washington's plan, the shield must increase security for Poland.
Washington wants to place 10 missile interceptors in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic to defend against what it perceives as a potential future threat from Iran.
But the plan has provoked an angry reaction and determined opposition in Moscow, which thinks the U.S. shield may hurt its national security. The dispute has helped drive relations between Moscow and Washington to a low, drawing comparisons to the Cold War.
Some European countries, in fact, fear a resurgence of Cold War-like hostility that will catch Europe again between two large adversaries.
"We don't want to be a football in between Russia and the United States," Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, an early critic of the U.S. missile shield plan, told reporters in Luxembourg on Tuesday. "We want the United States, Russia and Europe to play together in a common defence project."
The plan has caused concerns in Poland as well, with surveys showing most Poles oppose the idea and fear the country could become a target of a terrorist attack.
Warsaw is a strong U.S. ally, having committed forces to the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Senior Bush administration officials had said they expect Poland to take the next step toward hosting a piece of the missile defence system by agreeing to negotiate on a site. But the Polish government was clearly not ready to make the move on Tuesday.
"What has been presented to Poland is only a proposal," Defence Minister Aleksander Szczyglo told reporters after meeting with Gates in Warsaw on Tuesday. "On the premise of a proposal, it would be groundless to forecast what may happen or what may not happen."
He said the plan must increase Poland's security to be accepted.
"The condition of success of negotiations in this respect is only one --- these negotiations can be successful if the level of Poland's security is thus increased."
When asked, Szczyglo declined to say if that meant Warsaw wanted U.S. Patriot missiles to defend against a potential threat from Russia should Poland accept Washington's proposal over Moscow's objections.
Gates next heads to Berlin to discuss the U.S. proposal with Germany's defence minister on Wednesday.
Missile defence is also expected to dominate a meeting between Russia's Lavrov and NATO foreign ministers, including U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in Oslo on Thursday. (Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom and Michele Sinner in Luxembourg)
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