BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) _ The U.S. will proceed with its plans for a missile defense system in Eastern Europe whether or not any agreement is reached on an alternative Russian proposal, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday.
Gates dismissed any thoughts that Russia's push for joint use of a radar station in Azerbaijan could replace the U.S. plan for radar and interceptors in Poland and the Czech Republic. And he expressed doubts that there could be any agreement with the Russians by next month, when President Bush is scheduled to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
``I was very explicit in the (NATO) meeting that we saw the Azeri radar as an additional capability, that we intended to proceed with the X-Band radar in the Czech Republic,'' Gates said during a press briefing.
Gates' comments came as Russian officials called for a freeze on the U.S. plan, and reportedly issued threats against the planned sites in Poland and the Czech Republic. Gates said Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, who was at the NATO meeting, did not comment on his remarks.
Meanwhile, NATO ordered its military experts to draw up plans for a possible short-range missile defense system to protect nations on the alliance's southern flank that would be left exposed by proposed U.S. anti-missile units in central Europe.
A final decision on building the NATO system is expected at an April 2008 alliance summit in Romania, but the agreement to launch the study factors the U.S. proposal for Europe-based anti-missile interceptors and radar units into NATO planning for the first time.
According to U.S. and NATO officials, the addition of the European bases to anti-missile installations in North America would protect most of Europe from the threat of long-range attack from Iran or elsewhere in the Middle East. But it would leave Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria and parts of Romania exposed.
To fill that gap, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said NATO experts would produce a report by February on short-range anti-missile defenses ``that can be bolted on to the overall missile defense system as it would be installed by the United States.''
Asked if the NATO proposal represents a broad endorsement of the U.S. plan, Gates said there was no formal vote of approval taken, but none of the ministers spoke against the plan.
Russia has threatened to retaliate against the U.S. plans by pulling out of a key arms control treaty and pointing warheads at Europe for the first time since the Cold War. However, at last week's G-8 summit, Putin seemed to take a more open approach, suggesting Russia could cooperate with the West on an anti-missile radar base in Azerbaijan.
``There obviously is interest in trying to encourage the Russians to participate with us, to make the system complementary to NATO shorter-range missile defenses, and for transparency,'' Gates said.
The war of words over the missile defense system raged on Thursday, as Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the United States should freeze the proposed anti-missile plan while Washington and Moscow evaluate the Russian counterproposal.
And Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, in a Bloomberg report, warned that Russia will aim missiles at the sites in Poland and the Czech Republic if their installation goes ahead.
Gates declined to add to the discourse, saying that during the NATO meeting ministers said there was a ``need to modulate the rhetoric and for us to deal on a businesslike basis with one another.''
The NATO ministers also were due to meet their Afghan counterpart Friday. The defense ministers are seeking to increase training for the Afghan military and reduce the rising toll of civilian casualties in Afghanistan.
Gates urged European allies to stick to commitments to contribute equipment and troops to the 36,000-strong NATO force in Afghanistan. He also complained about ``shortfalls in key capabilities'' that are affecting the Afghan fight, including delays in getting more transport aircraft and the low level of military spending by some allies.
There are about 26,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.