U.S. offers Moscow concession on missile shield
MOSCOW (Reuters) - The United States is ready to look at re-modeling its missile defense plans to include Moscow, a senior U.S. diplomat said on Friday in a concession to Russian opposition.
The Kremlin has been pressing Washington to give ground on the proposed missile shield in exchange for Russia helping supply the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan -- a priority for new President Barack Obama.
Washington and Moscow have in the past discussed a compromise deal that would give Russia a role in the U.S. shield but those talks petered out in the last days of the previous U.S. administration.
"(Washington is) open to the possibility of cooperation, both with Russia and NATO partners, in relation to a new configuration for missile defense which would use the resources that each of us have," Interfax news agency quoted U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns as saying.
The U.S. embassy in Moscow confirmed the text of the interview. Burns, a former ambassador to Moscow, was in Russia this week for talks with officials.
Burns gave no details on what form the new missile defense configuration might take, but the wording he used appeared to go further than previous U.S. proposals aimed at easing Russia's concerns.
Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, told Reuters in an interview that Moscow would have to wait to see how Washington follows up on Burns' remarks.
But he said if the United States reviewed its missile defense plans "it will be a big present not just to Russia but a gift to Europe and Russia and the American people themselves because we will be able to find an alternative answer for the defense of our peoples from rogue states."
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said last week he wanted to hit the "reset button" on diplomatic relations with Russia, which reached their lowest level since the Cold War under former U.S. President George W. Bush.
The Bush administration pushed ahead with plans to deploy interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic to counter possible missile strikes from what it called "rogue states," specifically Iran.
Moscow says Tehran does not have the capability of hitting Europe and sees the shield as designed to neutralize Russia's nuclear arsenal. It has threatened to deploy missiles on Poland's border if the shield goes ahead.
The Obama administration has said it will press on with the missile shield plan, but only if it is proven to work and is cost-effective -- a qualification seen in Moscow as a sign Washington is ready to compromise.
Negotiations under the previous U.S. administration focused on allowing Russian officials to verify that missile defense installations were not directed against Russia.
Russia proposed a joint missile defense system, with the Pentagon having access to data from a Russian-operated radar station in ex-Soviet Azerbaijan, which borders Iran.
But neither of the two negotiating tracks was able to bridge the fundamental differences over missile defense.
Afghanistan is a major bargaining chip for Russia in negotiations over missile defense.
The Pentagon wants Russian cooperation to supply its forces in Afghanistan, especially since convoys of trucks taking in equipment via Pakistan were attacked by militants.
Russian officials said this week they were open to providing the U.S. military with a transit corridor for non-lethal supplies, though they have given strong hints they want something in exchange from Washington.
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