MOSCOW In a tense start to talks on a range of thorny issues, President Vladimir Putin on Friday warned U.S. officials to back off a plan to install missile defenses in eastern Europe or risk harming relations with Moscow.
Addressing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the Russian president appeared to mock the U.S. missile defense plan, which is at the center of a tangle of arms control and diplomatic disputes between the former Cold War adversaries.
"Of course we can sometime in the future decide that some anti-missile defense system should be established somewhere on the moon," Putin said, according to an English translation. "But before we reach such arrangements we will lose the opportunity for fixing some particular arrangements between us."
Rice and Gates appeared taken aback at the firm tone and forcefulness of Putin's remarks, which were made from notes in the presence of American and Russian news media before they began a closed-door meeting around an oval table in an ornate room at his dacha, or residence, outside the capital.
"We will try to find ways to cooperate," Rice said in response. "Even though we have our differences, we have a great deal in common because that which unites us in trying to deal with the threats of terrorism, of proliferation, are much greater than the issues that divide us."
After Putin addressed further comments about U.S.-Russian military cooperation to Gates, the American defense secretary responded by saying the Pentagon was ready to intensify a dialogue on military relations.
"We have an ambitious agenda of security issues that concern both of us, including, as you suggest, development of missile systems by others in the neighborhood I would say in particular, Iran," Gates said.
Gates did not directly comment on the missile defense dispute.
After keeping Rice and Gates waiting for 40 minutes, Putin began the session with a lengthy monologue in which he also said that Russia may feel compelled to abandon its obligations under a 1987 missile treaty with the United States if it is not expanded to constrain other missile-armed countries.
Referring to the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty that was negotiated with the United States before the breakup of the Soviet Union, Putin said it must be applied to other countries, including those "located in our near vicinity." He did not mention any by name, but in response, Gates said Washington was interested in limiting missile proliferation in Iran.
Putin, speaking through a translator, said the treaty must be made "universal in nature."
The pact eliminated the deployment of Soviet and American ballistic missiles of intermediate range and was a landmark step in arms control just two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall and later the breakup of the Soviet Union.
"We need to convince other (countries) to assume the same level of obligation as assumed by the Russian Federation and the United States," Putin said. "If we are unable to obtain such a goal ... it will be difficult for us to keep within the framework of the treaty in a situation where other countries do develop such weapon systems, and among those are countries located in our near vicinity."
On missile defense, Putin was particularly pointed in his remarks, in which sought to lay out his view of what Rice and Gates should be discussing later Friday with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov.
"We hope that in the process of such complex and multi-faceted talks you will not be forcing forward your relations with the eastern European countries," the president said. He then made his remark about the possibility of one day putting a missile defense system on the moon.
Shortly before the talks with Putin began, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov strolled into the dacha's billiards room, where American reporters had gathered, for a cigarette break. He was asked whether he expected any breakthroughs in the talks.
"Breaks, definitely. Through or down, I don't know," he said.
The Pentagon plans to install 10 missile interceptors in Poland, linked to a missile tracking radar in the Czech Republic. The Pentagon says the system will provide some protection in Europe and beyond for long-range missiles launched from Iran, but Russia believes the system is a step toward undermining the deterrent value of its nuclear arsenal.
Rice told reporters on Thursdsay on her flight to Moscow that the U.S. would go ahead with the program as planned.
"We've been very clear that we need the Czech and Polish sites," she said, although there's "considerable interest" in Russian ideas for cooperation such as sharing a Soviet-era tracking station in Azerbaijan.
"We're going to keep exploring ideas, we want to explore ideas," she said. "We are interested in other potential sites as well and we may be able to find ways to put that together."