Rice Calls Russia's Concern Over Missile Shield 'Ludicrous'

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Thursday dismissed as "ludicrous" Russian concerns that Washington's plans to deploy anti-missile defenses in Europe would endanger Moscow's nuclear arsenal.

A flurry of high-level talks in recent weeks has failed to soften Russia's public opposition to the U.S. plan to install radar scanners in the Czech Republic and 10 interceptor missiles in Poland.

Washington says the deployment is aimed at protecting Europe and North America from a growing threat of missile strike by North Korea, Iran or others in the Middle East. Moscow says those countries do not pose an immediate threat, and claims the U.S. plan aims to target Russia's strategic missile arsenal.

"Let's be real about this and realistic about this. The idea that somehow 10 interceptors and a few radars in Eastern Europe are going to threaten the Soviet strategic deterrent is purely ludicrous and everybody knows it," Rice told reporters ahead of NATO talks with Russia's foreign minister.

"The Russians have thousands of warheads. The idea that you can somehow stop the Russian strategic nuclear deterrent with a few interceptors just doesn't make sense."

The missile debate was expected to dominate two days of talks among NATO foreign ministers, who also will focus on efforts to back up the alliance's military mission in Afghanistan, and a split between Russia and Western powers over the future of Kosovo.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will join the talks after an opening session among the 26 NATO allies.

Rice said the U.S. would continue efforts to "demystify" the plan for the Russians by pushing an offer to cooperate with Moscow by sharing data and technology. She insisted that Russia, Europe and the United States shared a common threat from the risk of Iran developing long-range ballistic missiles.

"We are very happy to continue this dialogue, but we have to continue it on the basis of a realist assessment of what we are proposing, not one that is grounded somehow in the 80s," she told a brief news conference with her Norwegian counterpart, Jonas Gahr Stoere.

Russian officials and generals have revived Cold War language in criticizing the American plan, threatening to target the installations in Eastern Europe. The rhetoric has unnerved some in Western Europe, who fear the negative impact on relations with the Kremlin may outweigh any benefits of the missile shield.

Stoere said he needed to hear more from the Americans. "I remain to be convinced about the nature of the threats and the way to respond to them," he told reporters after his meeting with Rice.

However, NATO diplomats said there was growing support for the U.S. plans among European governments.

Ministers should get a report on Iran's nuclear stance from EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, after his talks with Iran's chief negotiator, Ali Larijani. The two met Wednesday and planned more discussions Thursday aimed at breaking the deadlock over Tehran's defiance of a U.N. demand for a freeze on uranium enrichment.

If Iran complies, Rice said the White House "is prepared to reverse 27 years of American policy and sit down face-to-face with the Iranians, with our allies, to talk about how Iran can have civil nuclear power."

On Afghanistan, Rice is likely to restate U.S. concerns about the refusal of some NATO allies to send troops to the frontline provinces in the south, where Canadian, British and U.S. troops are leading the fight against the Taliban. NATO ministers are expected to discuss plans to back up the military campaign with more political and economic support to the Afghan government.

Western allies are likely to press Lavrov to support a U.N. plan that would grant independence to Kosovo under international supervision. Russia has backed Serbia's opposition to the plan and has threatened to veto the plan. NATO fears that could leave its 17,000 peacekeepers facing the potentially violent consequences of a unilateral declaration of independence by the territory's Albanian majority.