- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2009

MOSCOW (AP) - Russia and the United States have a good chance to end their divisive dispute over missile defenses in Europe, a Foreign Ministry official said Thursday.

President Barack Obama’s apparent willingness to reconsider plans to base elements of a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic provides a “window of opportunity,” spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said.

“Results of our first contacts with representatives of Obama’s administration look encouraging,” Nesterenko told reporters. “There is a shared understanding that we have a new chance in our relations that mustn’t be missed.”

U.S.-Russian relations plunged to a post-Cold War low under the administration of President George W. Bush, whose plans to put missile defense sites in Eastern Europe and incorporate Russia’s ex-Soviet neighbors into NATO angered Moscow.

U.S. officials have said the proposed system is intended to protect against threats from Iran, but the Kremlin claims its aim is to weaken Russia’s nuclear deterrent.

Obama has not said how he intends to proceed, but he has said he told Russia that reducing the nuclear threat from Iran would reduce the need for missile defense sites.

Nesterenko also said Russia and the United States need to negotiate a successor to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expires in December, rather than extend the current treaty.

“It would be counterproductive to automatically extend the treaty, which already has been fulfilled and no longer could provide efficient means of strategic arms control,” Nesterenko said. “We are proposing to take the best from the START treaty, including verification mechanisms, and set new, lower limits for strategic weapons and nuclear warheads.”

Nesterenko said one of the problems in arms control talks would be U.S. plans to fit some strategic missiles with non-nuclear warheads. Russia has strongly criticized the U.S. intentions, saying the launch of such missiles could provoke a mistaken nuclear strike in retaliation.

Talks on a new arms control treaty are expected to begin soon after Obama meets Russian President Dmitry Medvedev for the first time, in London on April 1.

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