MOSCOW — Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Tuesday that Russia and the U.S. still disagree over a missile shield for central Europe, while Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the system "would not constitute a threat" to Moscow.
After talks with Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Lavrov told a news conference that the United States remains determined to deploy missile defense system and that Russia continues to oppose those plans. But both Lavrov and Rice voiced confidence that Washington and Moscow can continue to work constructively on this and a wide array of issues.
"When we have differences, we can talk about them in an atmosphere of mutual respect," Rice said, agreeing with Lavrov that the two sides do not agree about the positioning of the missile defense system.
Gates, joining Lavrov and Rice at a news conference, said that "we've leaned very far forward in this to provide assurance" that the system is not a threat.
"I would say they listened very carefully," Gates said. "President Putin took extensive notes last night and there was a lot done during the day today. That said, the full range of what we are now prepared to offer to discuss with the Russians is really just now after the day's talks being put down on paper, so the Russians will not see this until this evening. You have already heard the foreign minister positively characterize the ideas. ... Now they need to study them in greater detail. And I would expect and hope that we would hear back reasonably quickly."
Lavrov said that the two sides had "discussed contentious issues where we have not reached agreement." He also said the best way to avoid the problem "is to not set up this preferred positioning site at all."
But he did say the United States had made "important and useful" proposals to allay the concerns of Russian officials.
Despite tensions over the missile defense system, Lavrov had said earlier that Moscow would do what it could to keep relations with the United States on an even keel as Russian President Vladimir Putin steps down this spring.
A senior U.S. official traveling with the Cabinet secretaries confirmed that the United States presented a document to the Russians on Monday outlining what the United States thinks are the main issues that define the relationship between the two nations. The official was not specific but indicated that the issues include those that have troubled the Russians the most, such as the U.S. plan for a missile shield.
During a brief greeting witnessed by reporters Monday, Putin did not mention U.S. plans for the missile shield system in Poland and the Czech Republic — a proposition that has stoked Cold War rhetoric about an imperial United States meddling at Russia's doorstep.
Gates and Rice came into the talks exploring whether U.S. concessions have softened Putin's opposition to the shield system.
Rice said the two sides did agree during their talks here to set up a "joint strategic framework document" spelling out the various elements of U.S.-Russian relations.
"I, for one, have found the discussions useful. I have found them constructive," she said. Rice said she was glad the Russian side had agreed to look at the missile shield proposal "more closely."
"We have work to do," she acknowledged.
Although President Bush was expected to see Putin during a NATO summit next month, the two-day visit closes a chapter in negotiations with Putin as president.
Greeting Gates and Rice in his ornate office on Monday, Putin recalled that they had held talks last October — a session dominated by differences over missile defense and marked by sharp rhetoric from the Russian president.
"Six months have passed and we believe that in some of these issues we can probably dot the I's and reach final agreement," Putin said.
Even before the Americans arrived, Bush had sent Putin a letter framing the discussions. Bush wanted to make sure Putin stuck to the script, and U.S. participation in the unusual session hinged on Putin's agreement.
"The president wanted to assess whether there was openness to cooperation on some of these issues that have been difficult, like missile defense," Rice told reporters afterward. "He wanted to see ... whether President Putin is really interested in pursuing progress on a number of fronts."