US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hit back on Thursday at a Russian threat to deploy weapons in response to a NATO missile shield as the two sides failed to defuse a rift over the US-backed system.
"We will continue to press forward on missile defence," Clinton told a press conference in Brussels after talks between NATO foreign ministers and their Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.
"It does not affect our strategic balance with Russia and it's certainly not a cause for military counter-measures," she said.
Despite the disagreement, the two sides agreed to forge ahead with negotiations on cooperating in the system but Lavrov warned that time was running out.
Seeking to allay Russian fears that the defence system to be deployed partly in former Soviet bloc countries will undermine Russia's strategic arsenal, Clinton said it was mainly aimed at countering a threat from Iran.
"This is not directed at Russia, it is not about Russia. It is frankly about Iran and other state or non-state actors who are seeking to develop threatening missile technology," she said.
President Dmitry Medvedev last month announced that Russia was ready to deploy intermediate range Iskander missiles in the Kaliningrad exclave that borders EU members Poland and Lithuania.
Russia later also switched on a new radar warning system against incoming missiles in Kaliningrad and said it reserved the right to strike NATO's European shield components if its demands were not met.
Top Russian General Nikolai Makarov has warned that Moscow was "being pushed" into a new arms race.
Clinton already angered Russia this week by voicing "serious concerns" about the country's parliamentary elections. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accused her of provoking post-election protests.
The US chief diplomat defended her remarks, saying she was "supportive of the rights and aspirations" of the Russian people to seek "a better future."
NATO and the United States have sought to improve ties with Russia since President Barack Obama took office in 2009.
The former Cold War foes agreed last year to explore ways to cooperate in the system, being set up with interceptor missiles based in Romania and Poland, missiles aboard US ships in Spain and a radar system in Turkey.
Russia wants NATO to provide a legally-binding document stating that the anti-ballistic missile system is not pointed at it, but the alliance says it has made enough statements to that effect.
"We want to have clear guarantees that the missile defence capabilities will not be targeted against our strategic capability," Lavrov told a news conference.
Moscow also suggests that both sides operate a joint missile shield, but NATO insists on keeping two separate systems with the former Cold War foes sharing data.
"We stand ready to dialogue provided legitimate interests of all parties are taken into account," Lavrov said. "We still have some time, but time is running out every day."
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he hopes a deal will be struck at the next NATO summit in May 2012 in Chicago.
Despite lingering suspicions between the former Cold War foes, Russia has allowed the alliance to use its territory to send vital supplies to troops in Afghanistan.
The transit route through Russia has become all the more important since Pakistan shut down supply lines in anger at a deadly air strike on the Afghan border last month that killed 24 Pakistani troops.
But Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, suggested that a deal on the missile shield could not be separated from cooperation agreements in various other fields, including the transit route.
"We can't be told no on the missile shield project and then be required to say yes to other projects," he told reporters. "If this shield is not a shield, if it is something offensive ... this would be negative for us."
by Lachlan Carmichael and Laurent Thomet
© 2011 AFP