It may not be the Cold War again, but U.S.-Russian relations are getting chilly.
Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates to his residence outside Moscow today by making them wait 40 minutes and then delivering a stern lecture before a room full of reporters.
Putin mocked U.S. plans to build a missile defense system in Eastern Europe and suggested Russia may pull out of a key arms control treaty.
"Of course we can sometime in the future decide that some anti-missile defense system should be established somewhere on the moon," Putin said. "But before we reach such arrangements, we will lose the opportunity for fixing some particular arrangements between us."
Russia opposes U.S. plans to put a missile defense system in Poland and Czech Republic. The United States says the system is designed to protect against missile threats from Iran and North Korea; the Russians believe it is aimed at Russia.
"We hope," Putin said, "you will not be forcing forward your relations with the East European countries."
It was meant to be 60-second photo-op. Instead Putin spoke for nearly 10 minutes.
Rice seemed taken aback by the comments. When Putin was finished, she tried to strike a diplomatic tone. Ignoring the specifics raised by Putin, she recalled his meeting with President Bush in July.
"The president promised — and we are here to act on that promise — that we would try to find ways to cooperate for the common good," Rice said, "because that which unites us in trying to deal with the threats of terrorism, of proliferation, are much greater than the issues that divide us."
But on the flight to Moscow, Rice made it clear the United States had no intention of backing down on its plans to put the missile defense system in Eastern Europe.
"We have been very clear that we need the Czech and Polish sites," Rice told reporters on her plane. "But we are interested in other potential sites as well and … we may be able to find ways to put that together."
In another surprise to U.S. officials, Putin said Russia may pull out of a key U.S.-Russia nuclear-arms treaty.
"We need other international participants to assume the same obligations, which have been assumed by the Russian Federation and the U.S," said Putin.
Putin appeared to be talking about the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed by Mikhail Gorbachev and President Reagan in 1987.
"If we are unable to attain such a goal … it will be difficult for us to keep within the framework of the treaty in a situation when other countries do develop such weapons systems, and among those are countries in our near vicinity."
Putin spoke from notes. In contrast, neither Gates nor Rice had prepared comments because they had not expected public statements from either side at the photo-op.