Differences over Kosovo and US plans to install missile defenses in eastern Europe were expected to dominate talks here yesterday between Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and his NATO counterparts.
The meeting comes days after US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced that Washington may delay activating the proposed missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic until it has "definitive proof" of a missile threat from Iran.
The announcement was widely seen as an attempt to mollify Russian opposition to the US plan. Moscow says Iran is decades away from developing missile technology that could threaten Europe or North America, and claims the US bases will undermine Russia's own missile deterrent force.
In recent weeks Washington has made a number of proposals to calm Russian concerns, including the possible delay in activating the sites, an offer to share information from missile tracking radar units and allowing Russian observers at US facilities.
Since then the Russians have given mixed signals. Russian President Vladimir Putin last week said he detected "a certain transformation" in the US view that allowed for continued dialogue.
However, the next day, Russia's military chief of staff, General Yuri Baluyevsky, restated Moscow's objections and said there was "nothing new" in the US proposals.
"I expect that there will be some frank, robust discussion too of some of those issues on which there are disagreements between NATO allies and the Russian Federation," said John Colston, NATO's assistant secretary-general for defense policy, before the talks.
The US plan would install a radar base in the Czech Republic and 10 interceptor missiles in Poland. It is part of a wider missile shield involving defenses in California and Alaska which the US says are to defend against any long-range missile attack from countries such as North Korea or Iran.
Piqued by the US plans, Russia has frozen cooperation with NATO on a separate project to develop defenses against short-range battlefield missiles. Putin has also threatened to pull out of a Cold War-era treaty controlling conventional forces in Europe.
Russia and NATO nations are also divided over Kosovo. Moscow opposes a Western backed plan to grant the province internationally supervised independence from Serbia.
While talks continue, Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority is promising to follow through on a threat to declare independence unilaterally in December if there is no settlement.
NATO ministers on Wednesday agreed to maintain the alliance's 16,000 peacekeepers, the NATO Kosovo Force, in the territory and ready for any new violence.
"We'll keep up that level," NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told reporters.
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