By Mike Mount
The United States does not expect an agreement with Russia this year to settle a dispute about a U.S.-backed plan to place an anti-ballistic missile shield in countries around Europe, according to the senior U.S. government officials leading a U.S. delegation to a missile defense conference in Moscow this week.
The admission comes just over a month after President Barack Obama unknowingly spoke into an open microphone to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev saying he would have "more flexibility" to negotiate on missile defense after the U.S. elections.
The U.S. officials now openly acknowledge there will be no agreement this year.
Speaking to reporters on the phone from Russia on Wednesday, Ellen Tauscher, the U.S. special envoy for strategic stability and missile defense, and Madelyn Creedon, assistant secretary of defense for global and strategic affairs, said because the United States is in an election year and Russia is just coming out of one, there is too much uncertainty for there to be an agreement.
"I think it's pretty clear that this is a year in which we are not going to achieve any sort of a breakthrough, and President Obama and President Medvedev agreed to let the technical experts to do the work of better understanding our respective decisions," Tauscher said.
The two are in Moscow to attend a missile defense conference hosted by the Russian Ministry of Defense, where the United States plans to again make its case to Russia.
Russia has long said early warning missile detection radars and anti-ballistic missiles would undermine its strategic nuclear deterrent, but the United States has maintained that the system is not designed to target Russian nuclear missiles but a ballistic missile threat from the Middle East, such as Iran.
The United States and NATO have been in discussions with the Russians, explaining how the system will work and trying to alleviate their worries about the system, according to Tauscher. Russia has also been invited to be a part of the shield because the missile threat from the Middle East could involve them as well, according to Tauscher and Creedon.
"The system we are deploying in Europe to defend our European allies and the United States against a Middle East threat is not oriented against Russia, We feel very confident that it would be a game changer," Creedon said alluding to an improvement in relations between the two countries if Russia did agree to the missile shield deployment.
But missile defense and NATO experts say Russia has long considered NATO a national security threat and has been making excuses for years to try to stall the missile shield's deployment.
"The Russians have been uncomfortable with the whole endeavor and (are) not keen to see it go forward in an alliance context," said Damon Wilson, executive vice president of the Atlantic Council and a former special assistant to the president on the National Security Council.
"At the end of the day, they (Russia) will only come around to negotiate a deal with NATO when this is absolutely inevitable," Wilson said.
Russia has also proposed a legally binding agreement for the United States to sign that would hold NATO to using the anti-missile system for a Middle East ballistic missile threat and not retune it to use against Russian missiles.
"We cannot agree to any limitations on our missile defense deployments," Tauscher said, referring to Russia's proposal.
"We do not want to be limited on our system by Russia that is not even about Russia," according to Wilson.
"Negotiating a legally binding agreement with the Russians that are unilateral where the restrictions are on the U.S. side over a system that is strategically not related to Russia takes you down a very difficult and dangerous policy path," Wilson continued.
An anti-missile radar is already in place in Turkey, and the United States is planning to keep moving forward despite Russian concerns.
"There is nothing that I can imagine that will stop us from making those deployments on time," Tauscher said.