U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates will meet his Russian counterpart, Anatoly Serdyukov, on Thursday, at the first high level meeting of the Russia-NATO Council since ties cooled more than 2 years ago.
Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev agreed last November, at NATO's Lisbon summit, to search for a joint formula to build a system that would protect Eurasia and North America without threatening Russia's aging nuclear deterrent.
Kremlin considers its nuclear arsenal as the foundation of its national security.
However, Mr. Medvedev warned at a press conference last month that Russia might be forced to withdraw from the New START nuclear-arms reduction treaty and potentially plunge Europe into a new arms race if current US plans for antimissile deployments are carried out.
"It turns out that improvements in our relations are fleeting, based on nothing substantial, while on the big issues NATO does whatever it wants and just makes Russia face the fact," says Alexander Khramchikin, deputy director of the independent Institute of Political and Military Analysis in Moscow.
What Moscow wants is either a single antimissile system that's jointly operated – in other words, with a Russian finger on the trigger -- or two separate systems, one for Russia and one for Europe, that do not overlap. Since any missile launched against the West from Iran or North Korea would almost certainly traverse Russian airspace, the US and NATO appear unwilling to agree to limit their own system to radar and interceptor coverage that would end at the Russian border.
But NATO's secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has already dashed Moscow's hopes for command-level participation in a single system.
"The reason is simple — NATO cannot outsource to non-members collective defence obligations which bind its members," he said Tuesday. "I can also assure you that NATO will never attack Russia and we are convinced that Russia sees the alliance in the same light," Mr. Rasmussen added.
But Moscow wants it on black and white, not just rhetorical pledges.
"Russia wants commitments and legal guarantees which the Obama administration is not able to provide," says Vladimir Dvorkin, an expert with the Security Center at the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow.
What bugs the Kremlin is the Pentagon's "Phased Adaptive" missile defence plan, especially the later phases of the project, which will see large numbers of the advanced SM-3 "Block II" interceptors deployed beginning in 2018.
"The situation completely changes with the realization of the later stages of the missile defence plan," Lt. Gen. Andrei Tretyak, of Russia's General Staff, told journalists last month. "This is a real threat to our strategic nuclear forces."
Studies ordered by Russia's Defense Ministry have concluded that the planned deployments would pose a sufficient menace to Russian intercontinental missiles, along with the basic principles of the New START treaty.
All progress in US-Russia relations will grind to a halt should Russia withdraw from New START.