Russia and U.S. remain divided over missile defence shield

Moscow and Washington seem no closer to narrowing their differences on U.S. plans to build an anti-missile defence shield in eastern Europe.

Speaking at a Russia-NATO council meeting in the Netherlands, Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said Russia was fundamentally opposed to the project. 

“The decisions made by the US do not suit us and of course we stand on our own position,” Mr Serdyukov said.

However, Mr Sedyukov did suggest that Washington was at least listening to Russia.

“It seemed to me our American counterparts have started to understand our concerns and of course I’m glad about that,” he said.

NATO Secretary General Jaap De Hoop Scheffer said the talks were positive and conducted in a good atmosphere. 

“It proved again in my opinion that the NATO-Russia Council, where you agree on many things and you disagree on a few items, is the forum we should use to the full,” De Hoop Scheffer said.

Yet the improvements in style can't mask the difference in substance.

The issue at stake

Russia has been up in arms over February’s announcement that the U.S. is planning to construct missile and radar bases in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Washington says the bases will help prevent potential nuclear attacks from rogue states, such as Iran and North Korea. But Russia believes the new radar will allow the Americans to monitor previously inaccessible territories deep inside its borders.

The project also represents a humiliating loss of influence for a country that only twenty years ago could consider Eastern Europe its military backyard.

Searching for solutions

The two sides have tried to find compromises. Russia offered Americans the use of its Azerbaijan-located Gabala Radar. The Pentagon has not rejected the offer, but says it's not a like-for-like replacement.

Washington has recently embarked on a charm offensive, aimed at allaying Russian fears.

Condoleezza Rice says that the Russia can participate in running the missile defence bases.

U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice
U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice

U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates says the sites could be built and developed without being switched on “until there was concrete proof of the threat from Iran.” 

The countries in which the bases are to be located are divided on them as well. Opinion polls in the Czech Republic suggest a majority is against the construction of the radar. Despite reassurances from the government in Prague, many Czechs fear such powerful radar could damage their health.

Moreover, Donald Tusk, Poland's newly elected Prime Minister, may not provide the unquestioned support of his predecessor. It has been suggested that America may have to offer additional concessions to get the go-ahead.

However, none of this is likely to distract the White House.

U.S. President George W. Bush says Europe urgently needs an effective missile shield.

“Iran is pursuing the technology that could be used to produce nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles of increasing range that could deliver them,” Mr Bush said.

The Air Missile Defence Shield has overshadowed progress made elsewhere at the NATO summit in Nordwijk. 

Russian helicopters may be leased by NATO to cope with its shortage of equipment in Afghanistan. Furthermore, due to of its location, Russia can provide infrastructure and anti-drug trafficking support in the region.