- Associated Press - Thursday, December 8, 2011

BRUSSELS (AP) — Russia and NATO remain deadlocked on a long-running dispute over the alliance’s plan for a missile shield for Europe, officials said Thursday, and Russia warned that time was running out for an agreement.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen reported no progress toward a deal on the contentious issue, following a key discussion among alliance foreign ministers and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that came amid political turmoil in Russia and tart criticism of the United States.

Mr. Fogh Rasmussen rejected Russian criticism that NATO is ignoring its concerns that the planned missile system might one day be turned on Russia. He said discussions with Russia will continue, and he expressed optimism for an initial deal before NATO‘s next global summit, in Chicago in May 2012.

“We listen, and we have listened today,” Mr. Fogh Rasmussen told journalists after the meeting with Mr. Lavrov at NATO headquarters.

Mr. Lavrov, who speaks perfect English, spoke in clipped Russian immediately after Mr. Fogh Rasmussen.

“Unfortunately, our partners are not yet ready for cooperation on missile defense,” Mr. Lavrov said.

He left the door open for more talks, “provided that legitimate concerns of all parties are taken into consideration.”

Russia has insisted on a treaty that would be binding on the United States and its allies, guaranteeing that the anti-missile system would in no way threaten Russia’s own ballistic missiles. The U.S. has said that it’s willing to adopt a nonbinding written agreement but that a treaty is unworkable.

“No ally within NATO is going to give any other country outside the alliance a veto over whether NATO protects itself by building a missile defense system against threats we perceive are the most salient,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said.

“It’s not directed at Russia; it’s not about Russia; it’s frankly about Iran,” she said, adding it was “certainly not a cause for military countermeasures” by Russia.

The talks in Brussels came as Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin blasted Mrs. Clinton on Thursday for encouraging and supporting the election protesters and warned of a wider Russian crackdown on unrest.

By describing Russia’s parliamentary election as rigged, Mr. Putin said, Mrs. Clinton “gave a signal” to his opponents.

“They heard this signal and with the support of the U.S. State Department began their active work,” Mr. Putin said in televised remarks.

Russian protesters have taken to the streets in Moscow and St. Petersburg for three straight nights despite heavy police presence, outraged over observers’ reports of widespread ballot box stuffing and manipulations of the vote count in Sunday’s parliamentary election.

When asked about Mr. Putin’s comments, Mrs. Clinton said the U.S. valued its relations with Russia and the two countries have made progress working together. She pointed to NATO‘s military supply route across Russia to Afghanistan as an example of that cooperation.

“At same time, the U.S. and many others around the world have strong commitments to democracy and human rights,” she said. “We expressed concerns we thought were well founded about the conduct of the elections.”

With the political situation in Russia at its most perilous in years and talks on the missile defense plan at an impasse, Washington and NATO need Russia’s urgent help to deliver war supplies for Afghanistan. Russia effectively holds a veto card over the best alternate overland supply routes after Pakistan shut its border gates in protest of a Nov. 26 U.S. airstrike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

U.S. missile defense plans in Europe have been one of the touchiest subjects in U.S.-Russian relations going back to the administration of President Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush. Russian objection to the plan now is clouding Mr. Obama’s efforts to repair relations and threatening to undo progress in other areas.

One of Mr. Obama’s earliest moves to ease tensions was the administration’s 2009 announcement that it would revamp Mr. Bush’s plan to emphasize shorter-range interceptors. Russia initially welcomed that move but more recently has suggested that the new interceptors could threaten its missiles as the U.S. interceptors are upgraded.

The U.S. plan calls for placing land- and sea-based radars and interceptors in European locations, including Romania and Poland, over the next decade and upgrading them over time.

NATO says that it needs the system to defend from possible threats from the Middle East and that it can’t pose a threat to Russia’s own nuclear deterrent.

But Russian President Dmitry Medvedev threatened last month to deploy missiles to the westernmost Kaliningrad region and other areas of Russia to be aimed at the U.S. and NATO missile defense sites unless a deal is reached assuaging Russian concerns.

Moscow had agreed to consider a proposal NATO made last fall to cooperate on the missile shield, but the talks have been deadlocked over how the system should be operated. Russia has insisted that it should be run jointly, a proposal that NATO has rejected.

Further complicating matters, a Republican senator is blocking Obama’s nominee to become ambassador to Russia over suspicions the U.S. might provide Moscow with sensitive missile defense information as part of an eventual agreement.

The dispute has political overtones ahead of next year’s elections. The White House considers improved relations with Russia, including the signing of a major arms reduction treaty, to be one of the big foreign policy successes of Mr. Obama’s presidency. Republicans have accused Mr. Obama of granting too many concessions to Russia and getting little in return.

Mr. Medvedev also warned that Moscow may opt out of the New START arms control deal with the United States and halt other arms control talks if the U.S. proceeds with the missile shield without meeting Russia’s demands. The Americans earlier hoped the START treaty would stimulate progress in further ambitious arms control efforts, but such talks have stalled because of tension over the missile plan.

The New START has been a key achievement of Mr. Obama’s policy of improving relations with Moscow.

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