By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW (Reuters) - The U.S. ambassador to Russia was quoted on Monday as saying he was confident Russia and NATO would reach an agreement by May to cooperate on missile defense despite Moscow's statements that the former foes are far from a deal.
U.S. plans for a shield against potential missile attacks from Iran were a big factor in deteriorating relations with Russia during the administration of George W. Bush and have continued to strain improving ties under President Barack Obama.
Moscow is demanding binding guarantees from the United States and NATO that the system would not threaten Russian security, a non-starter in Washington because of strong opposition to any set restrictions on missile defenses.
Reaching a cooperation deal by May would be a big boost for relations, setting an upbeat tone at the outset of what is likely to be a new presidential term for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Putin revealed plans late last month to run in a March 2012 vote whose winner will take office in May.
"I am convinced that by the next NATO summit, which takes place in Chicago in May 2012, we will have an agreement on missile defense between Russia and the North Atlantic alliance," U.S. Ambassador John Beyrle was quoted as saying in an interview with the prominent Russian daily Kommersant.
Obama drastically scaled down his predecessor's plans for missile defense installations in central Europe, but Russia says the revised system could still undermine its security if it gains the capability to intercept Russian nuclear missiles.
Russia says it could scrap the landmark 2010 New START nuclear arms limitation pact with the United States if it is threatened by a missile shield, and President Dmitry Medvedev has warned of a new arms race if no agreement is reached.
Beyrle said the current U.S. proposal consists of three elements: an agreement on defense technology cooperation and the creation of two facilities, one for the joint analysis data about missile launches and one that would enable them to respond together in the case of a launch from a third country.
"This is what we are working on at the moment. The process is not fast, but I am very pleased we have been able to raise the level of trust significantly," he was quoted as saying.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said talks on defense technology cooperation would not produce an agreement before Obama and Medvedev are expected to meet at an Asia-Pacific summit in Hawaii in November, Kommersant reported.
Ryabkov said Moscow was "grateful" for the proposal on joint facilities but would continue to press for detailed, binding guarantees that a Western missile defense system would not threaten to weaken its nuclear arsenal.
"This is what the struggle is about now. It's impossible to say that we've made strong progress on this," Ryabkov said in an interview with the government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta.
Russia's NATO envoy, Dmitry Rogozin, also said Moscow would stick to its demand.
"There is still time for negotiations, but it is limited," Interfax news agency quoted Rogozin as saying.
(Writing by Steve Gutterman,; editing by Shaimaa Fayed)