U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday that Russia should not feel threatened when Eastern European countries strengthen their ties to the West.
Speaking briefly to reporters after meeting with Estonia Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, Gates said they discussed Russia's recent behavior, including its invasion of Georgia in August.
"Russia has no need to impede a sovereign country's desire to more fully integrate with the West," said Gates, as he stood next to Ansip. "Doing so is not a threat to Russian security, nor is further cooperation on cyber issues."
Asked about his country's security, Ansip said that he fully expects that NATO would defend Estonia, which is a member of the North Atlantic alliance.
Gates added that the U.S. continually reviews its assessment of the security situation in the region and that officials from U.S. European Command were in Estonia last month for talks on the matter.
Gates is visiting Estonia for the first time to attend a meeting of NATO defense ministers in a deliberate show of support for Eastern European nations, including the Baltics and Ukraine, in the face of increased muscle-flexing by Moscow.
The meeting comes as temperatures rise between Moscow and Washington, including ongoing discord over the U.S. plans to put a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic.
The Kremlin has rejected a second set of U.S. proposals offered to assuage increasingly strident Russian criticism of plans for an American missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, news agencies reported Wednesday.
The Bush administration says the system would protect Europe against potential future attacks by Iranian long-range missiles. Moscow has angrily dismissed those assertions, saying the system could eliminate Russia's nuclear deterrent or spy on its military installations.
In a major speech just hours after Barack Obama won the U.S. presidential vote, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev pledged to base short-range Iskander missiles in the Baltic Sea region of Kaliningrad on the border with Poland if the U.S. goes forward with its plans.
The Bush administration later sent Moscow a new set of proposals, including new suggestions about allowing Russian observers at planned U.S. sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, according to the U.S. acting undersecretary of state for arms control John Rood.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said this weekend the latest proposals were insufficient. On Wednesday, an unnamed Kremlin official told Russian news agencies that Moscow was prepared to work with Washington on questions of European security but accused the Bush administration of trying to limit the incoming Obama administration's choices on the issue.
The Kremlin did not comment on the report.
U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood would also not comment on the remark, but said the United States wanted to work with Russia on missile defense.
"And so we hope that Russia will cooperate with us closely on this," Wood said. "We want to have discussions."
Obama's plans remain unclear regarding the defense system, but an Obama aide said over the weekend that the incoming U.S. president did not commit to the missile defense plans during a recent conversation with Poland's president.
An American official said separately that the U.S. and Russia will begin talks Thursday in Geneva on finding a successor to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expires at the end of next year. The 1991 START treaty significantly cut U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.
The official spoke Wednesday on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to be quoted by name.
The U.S. Embassy in Moscow said the U.S. State Department's third-ranked official, William Burns, met with Lavrov and Kremlin foreign policy aide Sergei Prikhodko Wednesday about missile defense talks that would take place next month. No further details were released.