A Russian-operated radar station that Moscow is offering to share to counter potential missile threats from nations including Iran was visited Wednesday by American defense experts.
The visit to the Gabala radar station in Azerbaijan comes amid persistent tension over U.S. plans to install elements of a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, former Soviet satellites now in NATO. The issue is among the most divisive in strained relations between Moscow and Washington.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and other officials say they believe the U.S. plans are aimed at weakening their country and upsetting the strategic balance. They have dismissed U.S. insistence that the purpose of the installations would be to counter a potential threat from Iran.
Putin surprised U.S. President George W. Bush in June with an offer to share the towering Gabala station and a second radar under construction in southern Russia. The Bush administration welcomed the proposal but refused Russia's demand that it suspend plans for sites in Central Europe during talks with Moscow.
Tuesday's meeting came after two rounds of talks that brought no signs of progress in bridging the rift.
The U.S. hopes Tuesday's visit by technical experts can help jump-start the talks with new ideas for cooperation. A Russian military official echoed that hope.
"We are ready to discuss and prepare proposals for the leaders," Russia's state-run RIA-Novosti news agency quoted Maj. Gen. Alexander Yakushin, first deputy chief of staff of Russia's Space Forces, as saying.
However, Yakushin suggested Moscow still disagrees with Washington's view of the potential threat from Iran. While the U.S. estimates Iran could become capable of launching an intercontinental missile by about 2015, Russia believes Iran is decades away.
"The most important task now is to react adequately to threats that really exist to the south (of Russia), and not future hypothetical threats of 2020-2025," RIA-Novosti quoted him as saying.
Yakushin also emphasized that Russia wants the United States to halt all moves toward installation of a radar in the Czech Republic and 10 missile interceptors in Poland, calling such a suspension the "crux" of the proposal, RIA-Novosti reported.
The Bush administration is interested in the radars that Putin has offered, but as an addition to the system planned for Central Europe, not as a substitute. The Gabala radar is of a type that could not perform the same function as the one planned for the Czech Republic.
The U.S.-built radar would track a missile after it had been detected by other means. The missile defense system also would need other radars to detect launches. While the U.S. has some of those capabilities, the Gabala facility's proximity to Iran - just south of Azerbaijan - could help identify missile trajectories earlier.
Yakushin said Russia would show the American experts that the station's monitoring capabilities. The U.S. delegation was led by the deputy director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, Brigadier General Patrick O'Reilly, the U.S. Embassy in Azerbaijan said.
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