By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia signaled on Thursday that a change in U.S. plans for a European anti-missile shield could help the two sides make progress towards resolving a dispute that has severely strained ties between them.
On Friday, the United States announced plans to deploy 14 new anti-missile interceptors in Alaska after North Korea threatened a pre-emptive nuclear strike, and said it would forgo development of a new interceptor that would have been deployed in central Europe.
Cold War-era foes Moscow and Washington have long been at loggerheads over the shield in Europe, and President Barack Obama's move in 2009 to scale down earlier, Bush-administration plans only offered a short-lived respite. Russia's main concern is that the European shield would weaken its nuclear deterrent.
Russia's Foreign Ministry point man for U.S. relations said on Thursday the planned changes brought a new element to the issue and called for further dialogue although they did not dispel Moscow's concerns that U.S. missile defenses could threaten its security.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov's remarks were more upbeat than Russia's initial, critical reaction to U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's announcement of changes in U.S. global missile defense plans on Friday.
"There is no unequivocal answer yet to the question of what consequences all this can have for our security," Ryabkov told reporters.
"The causes for concern have not been removed, but dialogue is needed - it is in our interest and we welcome the fact that the American side also, it appears, wants to continue this dialogue," he said.
U.S. plans for anti-missile defenses have troubled relations with Russia since the Reagan era in the 1980s and have been an irritant since U.S. President George W. Bush pulled out of a Soviet-era treaty limiting their development in 2002.
Obama helped usher in a period of warmer ties with a 2009 decision to scale down the Bush blueprint for a European anti-missile shield, but Moscow soon began warning that the new plan also posed a threat.
Ties between Moscow and Washington, both veto-wielding U.N. Security Council member, have soured since the return of Vladimir Putin, a former KGB spy, to the Kremlin last May over human rights and security issues, including the war in Syria.
Washington says the anti-missile shield it has begun to deploy in Europe in cooperation with NATO nations is meant to counter a potential threat from Iran and poses no threat to Russia.
But Russia has said it would eventually enable the West to shoot down some Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles, tipping the post-Cold War balance of power, and has aired suspicions that this is the true aim of the system.
In its first official reaction to the new U.S. plan, the Foreign Ministry said on Monday that Moscow would stick to its demand for binding guarantees that the system would not threaten Russia's security.
The United States is highly unlikely to satisfy Russia's demand for binding guarantees over the system because of concerns about placing any limits on American missile defense development or giving the Kremlin a say in U.S. defense policy.
Ryabkov said on Thursday that the United States had provided Russia with more information about its plans during his talks in Geneva this week with Rose Gottemoeller, the U.S. acting under secretary of state for arms control and international security.
"The material is interesting - it brings something new into this situation," Ryabkov said. However, he added, "I would not venture to say now whether the decisions made by the (U.S.) administration are a plus or more of a minus."
(Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Hugh Lawson)
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