MOSCOW -- Top Russian officials publicly rejected a new proposal personally presented by senior U.S. Cabinet secretaries, meant to convince Moscow to withdraw its objections to a missile defense system in Eastern Europe.
Moscow's rebuff yesterday was made both in substance and tone, with President Vladimir V. Putin coming close to openly ridiculing the anti-missile system and the Russian foreign minister saying the U.S. had failed to make a case that Europe faces a long-range missile threat from Iran.
Speaking at the start of a meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates at his dacha on the outskirts of Moscow, Putin warned the Bush administration against attempting to assert its influence over Eastern Europe, saying it could irreparably harm U.S.-Russian relations.
"We can sometime in the future decide that some anti-missile system should be established somewhere on the moon, but before we reach such arrangements, we will lose the opportunity of fixing" other bilateral disagreements, Putin said.
Putin's spokesman said later that the president had not intended to be confrontational, and U.S. officials briefed on the Putin meeting insisted it was cordial.
But the talks appeared rife with diplomatic slights. Putin moved the meeting to his personal dacha from the Kremlin hours before it was to be held. It formally convened more than 40 minutes after Gates and Rice arrived at the appointed time, a delay that Putin ascribed to an emergency phone call.
Once it began, Putin unexpectedly proceeded to lecture Gates and Rice for several minutes before dozens of reporters.
Despite the visible tensions, U.S. officials said Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, had welcomed their new proposal to gain Russian assent by inviting Moscow to directly participate in some parts of the anti-missile system's operations.
Lavrov also sought further discussions between U.S. and Russian experts on whether the proposals met Moscow's concerns.
Rice sought to portray the unusually high-profile talks between the two defense ministers and two foreign ministers as constructive, and the first in a series that will begin to narrow differences between the two sides.
Despite Russian demands, however, she flatly asserted that the Bush administration would not freeze its talks with Poland and the Czech Republic on beginning construction of the missile defense sites. The Pentagon plan would put missile-tracking radar in the Czech Republic and 10 interceptor missiles in Poland.
The centerpiece of the new U.S. proposal presented yesterday is a program that would greatly expand the planned U.S. system by linking it directly with current Russian radars and, potentially, Moscow's existing missile defense system, which centers on protecting the Russian capital.
Although U.S. negotiators declined to give specific details, a senior Pentagon official involved in the talks said it includes allowing both Russian and U.S. personnel to staff the system's major components in order to give the Russian military assurance that it could not be converted to shoot down Russian nuclear missiles.
Russia has rejected similar data-sharing and joint headquarters proposals in the past, but U.S. officials insisted that the new plan went beyond what had been previously offered.
Peter Spiegel writes for the Los Angeles Times.