MOSCOW -- Russia and the United States failed on Tuesday to agree on U.S. plans to deploy parts of a missile defense shield in eastern Europe, an issue that has helped drive their relations to a post-Cold War low.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he had agreed with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at talks in Moscow to study further U.S. proposals that are aimed at allaying Russian concerns about the shield.
But negotiations on those proposals have already been underway for almost six months and time is running out to reach a deal before U.S. President George W. Bush's administration leaves office in under a year.
"On the matter of principle the positions of our two sides have not changed," Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said after taking part in more than six hours of talks with Rice, Lavrov and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
The United States says it wants to install radar and missile installations in Poland and the Czech Republic to protect against missile strikes from so-called "rogue" states, specifically Iran.
Russia is firmly opposed to the plan, saying it will upset the strategic balance and threaten Russia's own security. It has said it may return to its Cold War posture of targeting its nuclear missile at Europe if the shield is built.
Briefing reporters after their meeting, Rice and Lavrov appeared upbeat and friendly, joking together when a Russian reporter addressed her as "Mrs Gates." The last such four-way meeting was in Moscow in October last year.
Rice said on Tuesday they had made progress towards agreeing what she called a framework strategic agreement laying the foundations of U.S.-Russian relations for several years to come. She gave few details of what would be in the document.
There was no agreement on how to replace the START treaty, a cornerstone arms control pact, when it expires next year. Washington is resisting Russian pressure for a fully-fledged successor treaty.
COLD WAR PARALLELS
Disputes between Moscow and Washington over the missile shield, Kosovo's independence, the war in Iraq and Russia's human rights record have prompted some observers to draw parallels with the Cold War.
But economic ties are vibrant. Trade between the two countries increased to $17.5 billion last year, from $15 billion in 2006, and U.S. companies have invested heavily in Russia.
Lavrov's tone on the missile shield was more conciliatory than at previous meetings. Acknowledging that Washington seemed determined to deploy the shield, he said the talks should focus on mitigating what Moscow sees as the risks from it.
"We have appreciated that while disagreeing with us in substance, they (Washington) agreed that their project fuels our concerns and offered proposals aimed at lifting or easing these concerns," he said.
Those proposals include allowing Russia to inspect the missile shield sites and not activating the system unless there is firm evidence Iran has, or is close to acquiring, a long-range missile strike capability.
The Russian ministers promised to closely examine the measures Washington was offering. Similar promises though were made at last October's meeting, prompting some U.S. officials to ask if Moscow was playing for time.
"I would expect and hope that we would hear back reasonably quickly (from Russia on the proposals)," said Gates.
The Bush administration has less than 10 months left in office and Russia is eyeing what a new U.S. government might do on missile defense and other contentious issues.
"The Russian leadership has two good allies -- time and U.S. policy. If the Democrats win the U.S. presidential election, they could review the missile defense program," Russia's Vedomosti daily wrote in an editorial on Tuesday.
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