MOSCOW -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates took the Bush administration's campaign to install a missile defense system in eastern Europe to the highest levels yesterday, meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin, the plan's fiercest opponent.
Gates emerged hopeful after meeting with Putin and senior Russian officials, saying the two sides had reached an agreement to set up a bilateral committee of experts to go over Russia's objections, including Putin's concern that the bases could be converted to other uses.
"We made some real headway," Gates said after the daylong discussions.
Putin did not comment on the substance of the talks, but his new defense minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, repeated Moscow's objections after meeting separately with Gates. "The Russian position remains unchanged," Serdyukov said.
In January, the Bush administration opened negotiations aimed at placing 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a missile-tracking radar installation in the Czech Republic as the core of what would be a third site for the Pentagon's global missile-defense system.
The first two sites, which are being put tested in Alaska and central California, are aimed predominantly at defending against an attack from North Korea. The administration says the European site would defend the United States and its NATO allies against any long-range Iranian missiles.
Senior U.S. military and diplomatic officials have fanned out across Europe in recent weeks to counter growing popular opposition to the plan. But Gates' hastily organized visit to Moscow, which will be followed by stops in Warsaw and Berlin, marks the first time that a Cabinet-level official has made the trek to push the program.
Russian officials said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has scheduled a visit to Moscow in coming weeks.
Gates said he was not discouraged by Serdyukov's repetition of Russia's objections.
Peter Spiegel writes for the Los Angeles Times. Times reporter David Holley in Moscow contributed to this article.