- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 14, 2011

U.S. and NATO plans to deploy missile defenses in Europe continue to hamper closer Russian ties to the United States, despite recent improvements in relations, Russia’s foreign minister said during a visit to Washington this week.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov concluded the three-day visit with a meeting Wednesday at the White House with President Obama. They discussed missile defenses as well as the unrest in the Middle East inspired by the Arab Spring.

“We cannot start practical cooperation until we have an agreement regarding the architecture of the European missile defense system,” Mr. Lavrov said Tuesday.

Despite differences, Mr. Lavrov and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed three treaties Wednesday on nuclear radiation and waste, as well as U.S.-Russian adoptions. The visit included discussions on the conflict in Libya and Iran’s nuclear program.

Mr. Lavrov said opposition to missile defense is based on its proximity to Russia’s European border.

“Only after we agree on how we understand the threats and are able to understand the geography of the deployment of missile defense systems shall we decide on the systems required to intercept potential missiles flying towards Europe,” he said Tuesday.

Mrs. Clinton said the missile defense would protect Russians as well as citizens of NATO countries from the threat of Iranian missile attacks.

The administration is pursuing what it calls a phased approach to gradually expanding sea- and land-based anti-missile interceptors and radar during the next decade.

“We have an opportunity to address common challenges in a way that makes Russians, Europeans and Americans safer, and we are committed to working with both Russia and our NATO allies to do so,” Mrs. Clinton said Wednesday.

Russia opposes the European missile defense plans, claiming the program is secretly designed to counter Russia’s strategic forces, something the U.S. side has denied.

“President Obama has confirmed his readiness … to reach an understanding of common policy and creating strong political framework that will let us start practical cooperation” on missile defense, Mr. Lavrov said Wednesday.

Mr. Lavrov said Russia has not been formally invited to the next NATO summit, to be held in May 2012 in Chicago. It was at the previous NATO conference, hosted in Lisbon in November, where the alliance and Russia agreed to cooperate on the missile defenses.

Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton both praised Russia for its role as a negotiator with the Libyan government, with Mrs. Clinton saying that both the United States and Russia agreed Col. Moammar Gadhafi should step down from power.

“Although neither one of us can predict to you the exact day or hour that Gadhafi will leave power, we understand and agree that his days are numbered,” Mrs. Clinton said.

Mr. Lavrov said Russia opposed what it views as NATO going beyond a United Nations mandate in Libya. But he said the United States was acting more in line with international law than other members of the alliance.