MOSCOW (AP) _ Defense Secretary Robert Gates failed Monday to coax Russia from its opposition to U.S. missile defense bases in Europe, but he suggested Moscow may be more flexible than it seems.
Gates, on his first visit to the Russian capital since he came here as CIA director in 1992, made the opening bid in a series of high-level Bush administration diplomatic moves aimed at softening Russia's view on missile defense. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will follow later this week at talks in Norway, and Gates said Russian and U.S. defense technical experts would confer in the weeks ahead.
Outwardly, Gates seemed to make little or no progress. But after a full day of meetings, including a session with President Vladimir Putin, Gates sounded a modestly optimistic note and said talks would continue.
``I felt like we made some headway,'' he told a small group of American and Russian reporters at his Moscow hotel.
``I think there are some misunderstandings'' on the Russians' part, Gates said, about some of the technical aspects of the missile defense system that the Pentagon wants to place in eastern Europe. The intent is to give a degree of protection to Europe _ including parts of Russia _ from missiles fired from the Middle East. Washington is engaged in talks with Poland about building a missile defense base there to house 10 interceptor rockets, and with the Czech Republic about hosting a missile tracking radar.
``Those are the kinds of things that we can clarify,'' Gates told reporters.
The Russians also raised with Gates their concern about a U.S. Navy plan to convert nuclear warheads of some of its submarine-launched Trident missiles to conventional warheads. The Russians' worry is that a converted Trident missile could be mistaken for a nuclear launch, risking the possibility of a retaliatory nuclear strike. Gates said the warhead conversion plan remains on the Pentagon's agenda.
Last week, U.S. officials gave the Russians a new package of suggested ways of cooperating on missile defense _ a move intended to offset the Russians' concern about having American military forces so close to its border.
Gates said Monday that these proposals include working together to experiment with new concepts and technologies as well as research and development, and possibly co-locating U.S. and Russian radars. He also mentioned the possibility of U.S. and Russian forces doing missile defense operations as part of a peacekeeping mission.
``We face new threats that require new strategies for deterrence and defense,'' Gates said in a prepared statement delivered in a Ministry of Defense hall with newly appointed Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov seated beside him. ``We invite Russia to join our defensive endeavor as a partner.''
Serdyukov, however, made clear that Moscow is opposed, saying, ``The Russian position with respect to this issue remains unchanged.''
``We do believe that deploying all the strategic elements of the ballistic missile defenses is a destabilizing factor that may have a great impact upon global and regional security,'' he added.
When asked later about the apparently categorical rejection voiced by Serdyukov, Gates said, ``I had the impression that that statement was prepared before'' the talks, although it was delivered afterward. Gates said there was a less rigid tone to the talks, as well as during informal discussions on the side.
The bases would be meant to protect Europe from a long-range nuclear missile launched by Iran. U.S. officials say such a threat may be fast approaching but the Russians say it is exaggerated.
The dispute has become a major irritant in U.S.-Russian relations.
At the start of their meeting in the Kremlin, Gates and Putin exchanged pleasantries, and Gates said, ``There is a great deal we can accomplish together.''
Washington has repeatedly insisted that an anti-missile system in Europe would not threaten the viability of Russia's vast offensive nuclear missile arsenal and would offer it some protection from a potential Iranian attack.
The Russians not only question the seriousness of the threat from long-range missiles, which U.S. officials say is real and growing, but also the feasibility of U.S. anti-missile technology as a response to any such threat.
The Bush administration sees the extension of its existing missile defense system to Europe as crucial.