BRUSSELS Russia said on Thursday that time was running out to conclude a missile defence deal with NATO, as the alliance insisted it would press ahead with a project it says is aimed at countering threats from states such as Iran.
Moscow is seeking legal guarantees that NATO's planned missile defence system is not aimed at limiting Russia's strategic nuclear capability, and wants joint control of how the system is used. Moscow has said it will take military counter-measures if necessary.
NATO, however, wants separate systems.
"It does not affect our strategic balance with Russia and certainly is not a cause for military counter-measures," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said of the missile defence plan at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels.
"That said, no ally within NATO is going to give any other country outside the alliance a veto over whether NATO protects itself by building a missile defence system against the threats that we perceive are the most salient," she added.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov repeated during a meeting with his NATO counterparts his country's concerns about plans to station elements of the missile defence system near Russia, in NATO member states Poland, Romania and Turkey.
These would include radar that would have coverage extending into Russian territory. Russia has threatened to deploy missiles and radar near NATO territory to counter the system, if an agreement to cooperate cannot be reached.
"They keep repeating not to worry, not to worry, it is not targeted against you," Lavrov said. "If we are to be treated as a potential strategic partner, we'd like people to have respect for our intellectual abilities.
"We need legally binding arrangements, because good intentions come and go, while military capability is what stays."
Russia and NATO already have a binding agreement that they will refrain from the use of force against each other. And both Lavrov and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the two sides had agreed to strengthen cooperation in other areas, including the fight against terrorism. In addition, NATO ministers backed Russian proposals to boost cooperation in fighting maritime piracy.
Despite the disagreement on missile defence, Rasmussen said NATO still hoped to reach an outline pact with Russia by the time of a NATO summit in Chicago next May.
"We do not agree yet," Rasmussen told reporters. "We all agree it is important to keep on trying to keep on talking to keep on listening to each other's concerns... If we can agree on this issue it will take our relationship to the next level."
Lavrov reiterated a demand for guarantees that the system did not target Russia, given the stationing of the shield's military infrastructure near its territory.
"We believe we still have some time to reach a mutually beneficial solution," he told a news conference. "We still have some time, but time is running out every day."
MISSILE DEFENCE LINK TO WIDER COOPERATION
Last month Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said he would arm Russia with missiles capable of countering the U.S. shield and set up an early-warning radar system in its Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, which borders Lithuania and Poland, in a bid to put pressure on the United States and NATO.
At the same time, Medvedev said NATO could use the radar station in Kaliningrad as part of a missile defence system if the two former Cold War foes agreed to cooperate.
On Wednesday, Rasmussen dismissed the threat to deploy missiles near NATO territory as harking back to a "bygone era" and said Moscow's recent rhetoric had not been in line with an improved mood seen at a NATO summit last year.
Analysts say Russia is overstating the threat from the shield to use the issue as a bargaining chip with the West. U.S. and NATO officials also say recent anti-Western rhetoric has appeared aimed at a domestic audience in an election period.
But the problem could affect wider cooperation. Russia lets NATO transport supplies for Afghanistan move across its territory and the route has become vital since Pakistan barred ground resupply via its territory last month.
Russia's NATO envoy Dmitry Rogozin suggested Moscow could reduce its support for NATO's Afghanistan campaign if it did not heed its warnings about missile defence.
"Mr Lavrov said that for us, cooperation is a complex of all the projects," Rogozin said. "You can't say to us: 'No on the anti-missile shield, but yes for the other projects'."
He told reporters that NATO's planned missile defence plan would have the potential to tamper with Russian defence systems.
"If we see that the shield is ... something offensive that could control Russian territory as far as the Urals, of course for us that is a very, very negative surprise," he said.
(Writing and additional reporting by Sebastian Moffett; Editing by Mark John and Rosalind Russell)
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