U.S.-Russia Deal Possible On Missile Defense Plan

U.S. negotiators said Thursday they had made progress in drafting a document with Russian counterparts that could include a deal on the divisive U.S. missile defense plan.

The U.S. officials said they hope to complete the document laying out areas of agreement before a meeting between President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin scheduled for April 6 in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi. The two days of talks with the Russian delegation began Wednesday.

However, the officials who led the U.S. negotiating team — Daniel Fried, acting undersecretary of state for political affairs, and John Rood, undersecretary for arms control and international security — said it was unclear whether disagreements over missile defense and other issues would be resolved in time.

"We still have some more work to be done, but I think we have settled the bulk of the issues," Rood told reporters on a conference call.

The talks with the Russian delegation, led by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak, were intended to build on a visit to Moscow earlier this month by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The two officials made proposals that would allow Russia to closely monitor prospective missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic.

The U.S. missile defense plan has been vociferously opposed by Russia and has become a chief source of tension between the two countries.

Gates and Rice also presented a draft of the document the negotiators are hoping to sign with Russia.

The document would outline a formal framework to numerous issues from economics to foreign affairs to nonproliferation where the United States and Russia have common or overlapping interests and lay out areas of agreement reached under Putin and Bush. Officials say it is intended to have an eye to the coming political transitions in both nations.

Putin steps down as president in May, and Bush leaves office in January.

The document would also list the trouble spots, among them the independence of Kosovo, which the U.S. supports over strong Russian objection.

Fried and Rood said that the two sides will continue exchanging ideas on the document in coming days.

"There are significant issues that still need to be resolved. Missile defense would be one of them," Rood said.

On Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made clear that Russia is maintaining a tough negotiation position on the U.S. plans to install a radar in the Czech Republic and interceptors in Poland.

"We are convinced that the best way to assuage Russia's concerns ... will be to abandon such plans and turn to a truly collective project," Lavrov told reporters in Moscow.

Lavrov has said the proposals made by Gates and Rice to allow Russian monitoring of the two sites reflected the U.S. recognition of Russia's concerns, but he added that Moscow needs to study them in details before replying.

Putin has rejected U.S. arguments that the missile shield is needed to counter a prospective missile threat from Iran. He argues that the U.S. plan would erode Russia's nuclear deterrent.

Last summer, Putin proposed that the United States jointly use an early warning radar in Azerbaijan instead. The United States has promised to consider that Russian offer, but it said it couldn't replace its planned facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic.