Condoleezza Rice faces Russia over missile shield plan

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will try to ease Russian concerns over a controversial missile defence shield in Europe when she meets top Kremlin ministers in Moscow on Friday. Rice and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates are meeting their Russ

Before the two sides get down to negotiations, Dr Rice will have a meeting with President Putin. Among the issues they're expected to discuss are democracy in Russia, the status of Kosovo, Iran’s nuclear programme, the situation in the Middle East and, possibly, President Putin’s personal political plans after he leaves office in 2008.

Moscow opposes U.S. plans to deploy the missile shield, saying it poses a threat to Russia's security.  Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov will be making the point forcibly to their U.S. counterparts. The American proposal involves placing interceptors in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic.

The U.S. claims the system will protect Europe from possible threats from Iran and North Korea.  Moscow says such threats are implausible, but has offered the U.S. joint use of a Russian-operated early-warning radar in Azerbaijan instead.

“Moscow's proposal was to include Russian radar deployed not far from Iran border and to make it part of the new missile-defence system. Unfortunately, the U.S. rejected this proposal and agreed only to use it as one part of the system.  Actually, to my view, the question is not about Russia taking part in the system. The question is much more valuable and important: who will control, who will be able to switch on or to switch off the system in general. So, Russia wants to play a key role in the system,” said Vadim Kozyulin, a military analyst and the Director of the Conventional Arms Programme in Russia's Centre for Policy Studies.

Although the U.S. decision is welcomed by Polish and Czech officials, most of the people there are against the idea.

The plan doesn’t have unanimous support in Europe either, where there are fears it might antagonise Russia.  

So far, neither side has given ground on the issue, and few expect a breakthrough in the latest talks.  

“I don't expect much from this round. The best way would be if the discussion concentrates on Russian proposals, because so far we have an American decision, a Russian objection, but  also a positive step are Russian proposals,” says Vladimir Orlov, from Political Studies Centre.  

While the U.S. hasn't rejected President Putin's offer for joint-use of the Gabala radar station in Azerbaijan, Washington has made it clear they don’t consider the offer as a substitute for their missile plan.

Today the sides seem no closer to the resolution, but they are not giving up.

“The consultations held in preparation for the ministers’ meeting demonstrated that we have solid arguments for taking this approach. The American side promised that by the time we meet in the two-plus-two format, they will have a definite response to our proposals ready. We hope that the decision they make will help us strengthen strategic stability rather than create new risks,” Russia’s Foreign Minister, Lavrov noted.

Vladimir Orlov says there'll be some tough talking on the two-day visit.

“Diplomacy and military issues should be put together. There are not only military solutions. And, unfortunately, there are not only diplomatic solutions because military technologies are involved. As Americans have their own explanation of the reasons for the missile defence, Russians have their counter-arguments – very strong ones”, he said.      

Many analysts say the Moscow talks give both sides a last chance to find common ground on missile defence before their respective countries are plunged in election campaigns.