By ROBERT BURNS
The Associated Press
Tuesday, April 24, 2007; 1:58 PM
WARSAW, Poland -- The Bush administration is willing to negotiate with Russia on limitations to proposed U.S. missile defense bases in Europe, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday.
No such negotiations have been set. But Washington is seeking to allay Russian concerns about the proposed system, which would be an extension of a network of radars, interceptors and command posts in the western United States designed to shoot down a hostile long-range nuclear missile.
The system in Europe would be meant specifically to protect Europe from a missile launched from the Middle East. The U.S. proposal has stirred controversy not only in Russia but also in Europe.
In Moscow, reviving Cold War-like rhetoric, the Russian military's chief of general staff warned that Russia might target elements of the system.
"If we see that the facilities pose a threat to Russia's security, the facilities will be objects for plans of our forces. Whether strategic, nuclear or otherwise _ that's a technical question," said Gen. Yuri Baluyevksy. His comments were among the harshest in months of Russian criticism of the American plans.
Gates, at a news conference with his Polish counterpart, acknowledged that Russia has concerns not only about an advanced missile-tracking radar that the Pentagon wants to place in the Czech Republic but also the associated missile interceptors that it would install in Poland.
The interceptors are intended to collide with a hostile missile during flight, destroying the target while still outside the Earth's atmosphere. The system's results during testing have been mixed.
Gates said the Russians' questions about the radar "are questions that we can answer." And he noted Russian expressions of concern that the proposed interceptor base in Poland, while not a threat to Russia now, could later be changed in ways that would undermine the viability of Russia's offensive missile force.
"In terms of assurances that the system would not be changed years from now in a way that might be more threatening to the Russian deterrent (force), it seems to me that's a matter that could be negotiated," he said.
Gates did not elaborate. He has previously said missile defense bases in Europe are not targeted at Russia and should cause Russia no concern, now or in the future. He also has said the Bush administration is willing to address any Russian worries. On Monday he offered to permit Russian officials to visit a missile interceptor base in Alaska and a missile-tracking radar in California to see how they work.
Gates met with Polish Defense Minister Aleksander Szczyglo and later with President Lech Kaczynski. On Monday, he met in Moscow with President Vladimir Putin and other government leaders. The Russians reiterated their opposition to the missile defense plan.
At the news conference, Szczyglo did not commit Poland to hosting a U.S. missile defense base. He said Poland would have to be persuaded that the base would enhance Poland's security _ an apparent allusion to concern that it might trigger countermeasures by Russia.
Szczyglo also said his government believes that Russia's objections have more to do with internal Russian politics _ including the approaching 2008 presidential election _ than with real concern about security.
Gates' visit signaled a Bush administration move to intensify its push for Polish approval of the plan. Last week Eric Edelman, the top policy adviser to Gates, discussed the issue before a parliamentary committee here, alongside Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, director of the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency.
Edelman accompanied Gates to Warsaw on Tuesday. Obering is visiting Prague this week to consult with Czech officials on pursing a formal agreement for basing the advanced missile tracking radar in that country.
On Wednesday Gates was flying to Berlin to discuss the missile defense issue with German officials.
Polish public support for hosting the U.S. missiles has been sliding. In new poll results released Monday by the CBOS, a government-affiliated public opinion research center, 57 percent of Poles opposed the plan. That was up two points from February. Supporters dropped three points to 25 percent.
The survey was done between March 30 and April 2, and had a margin of error of three percentage points.
A similar poll conducted in the Czech Republic found 68 percent opposed to hosting a U.S. radar base as part of the missile defense system, while 26 percent said they approved. That poll, conducted April 2-9, had a margin of error of three percentage points.