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Russia, US fail to agree on missile shield

Russia and the United States failed on Tuesday to find common ground over US plans to deploy parts of a missile defense shield in eastern Europe.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he had agreed with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice after six hours of talks in Moscow to study further US proposals aimed at allaying Russian concerns about the shield.

The US plan has plunged relations between the two countries to a post-Cold War low and negotiations on the proposals have already been running for almost six months.

“On the matter of principle the positions of our two sides have not changed,” Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said after taking part in the talks with Rice, Lavrov and US Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Time is running out to reach a deal before US President George W. Bush's administration leaves office in under a year.

The United States says it wants to install radar and missile installations in Poland and the Czech Republic to protect against missile strikes from so-called “rogue” states, specifically Iran.

Russia says a shield would upset the strategic balance and threaten Russia's own security. It has said it may return to its Cold War posture of targeting its nuclear missiles at Europe if the shield is built.

Briefing reporters after their meeting, Rice and Lavrov appeared upbeat and friendly, passing notes and joking together when a Russian reporter addressed her as “Mrs Gates.” The last such four-way meeting was in Moscow in October.

Rice said they made progress on a so-called strategic framework agreement laying the foundations of US-Russian relations for several years. According to a US official, the document lays out about 20 topics of mutual interest and cooperation split into four subject areas - economics, security, weapons of mass destruction and terrorism.

Another senior US official said one reason for the document was to bring more stability to Russia-US relations.

“There was a dominant theme that things were slipping,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

There was no agreement on how to replace the START treaty, a cornerstone arms control pact, when it expires next year. Washington is resisting Russian pressure for a fully-fledged successor treaty.

Disputes between Moscow and Washington over the missile shield, Kosovo's independence, the war in Iraq and Russia's human rights record have prompted some observers to draw parallels with the Cold War.

But economic ties are vibrant. Trade between the two countries increased to $17.5 billion last year, from $15 billion in 2006, and US firms have invested heavily in Russia.

Lavrov's tone on the missile shield was more conciliatory than at previous meetings - a shift characterized by US officials as progress. Acknowledging that Washington was determined to deploy the shield, he said the talks should focus on mitigating what Moscow sees as the risks from it.

“We have appreciated that while disagreeing with us in substance, they (Washington) agreed that their project fuels our concerns and offered proposals aimed at lifting or easing these concerns,” Lavrov said.

Another senior US official said the Russians appeared to be taking a more “pragmatic, realistic” approach to missile defense as discussions heated up with the Czech Republic and Poland.

Washington's offer to Moscow includes allowing Russia to inspect the missile shield sites and not activating the system unless there is firm evidence Iran has, or is close to acquiring, a long-range missile strike capability.

The Russian ministers on Tuesday promised to closely examine the measures Washington was offering. Similar promises though were made at October's meeting, prompting some US officials to ask if Moscow was playing for time.

The Bush administration has less than 10 months left in office and Russia is eyeing what a new US government might do on missile defense and other contentious issues.

“The Russian leadership has two good allies - time and US policy. If the Democrats win the US presidential election, they could review the missile defense program,” Russia's Vedomosti daily wrote in an editorial on Tuesday. (Reuters)