MOSCOW - German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer met Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday in a bid to avert a Moscow clash with Washington over US plans to build a nuclear defense shield.
Putin warned the United States in a keynote policy speech last month that the national missile defence (NMD) system and NATO's expansion into eastern Europe would "irreparably damage" global stability.
However Fischer appeared to make some headway in talks with Russian counterpart Igor Ivanov, winning a pledge from the Moscow minister to take a "constructive approach" to the brewing nuclear arms tussle.
Following his Fischer meeting, Ivanov announced he would hold his first direct talks with US Secretary of State Colin Powell in Cairo on February 24, negotiations devoted to the sensitive issues of nuclear defense.
"We are ready to take into consideration any of the concerns from our partner (the United States) to find a common solution" to the NMD debate, the Russian foreign minister said.
Putin for his part, in opening remarks delivered to reporters before the Kremlin doors closed, told Fischer that "in certain areas, our views (with Germany) correspond," an apparent reference to the Berlin diplomat's call for a frank dialogue with the White House.
Due to travel to Washington soon, Fischer said the European Union wanted "consultation, not confrontation" on the issue between the two nuclear powers.
"The Russian leadership has assured us that Russia will adopt a constructive approach with the Americans," Fischer said.
His two-day visit to Moscow followed Ivanov's urging that the NMD dispute was not "only a Russian-US problem," adding that Moscow wanted to consult the European Union, China and NATO on the subject.
Fischer said Germany did not want to act as a go-between, but rather recognized that the views of Russia and the United States were crucial to the future of European security.
"There is no need for any mediators. This is not about standing in the middle. We are a member of NATO and the United States is our most important partner in all security issues and in many other matters," he said after meeting Ivanov.
"But Russia also has major significance for European security," he added.
Germany and France have voiced concern about isolating Moscow by pressing ahead with the missile shield without securing Russian consent.
Washington's declared intention to deploy a missile-based defense system in abrogation of the terms of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty has sharply escalated tension between Russia and the United States since the election of George W. Bush as president last year.
Bush recognized in an interview with The New York Times last month that Moscow had raised "great objections" to US missile defence plans, but stressed that the shield would be defensive in nature and underscored the need for nuclear weapons reductions.
Russia argues that US deployment of the missile defence shield would breach the terms of the ABM treaty, a cornerstone of current nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament agreements.
But in addition to the threat of an East-West nuclear showdown in space, Putin warned that Russia was also concerned about NATO's terrestrial expansion into former Communist states of eastern Europe.
The Russian leader described the policy of NATO enlargement as "an unacceptable mistake."
Fischer broached the vexed question of the Alliance's expansion eastwards at talks Tuesday with the head of Russia's Security Council, Sergei Ivanov, who said both sides had "reached an understanding of the other's position."
"The prospects of Russia's relations with NATO and with European countries on security problems featured prominently at the talks," Ivanov told reporters at the end of the meeting.
Russia severed all high-level contacts with the Atlantic alliance in the wake of the 1999 Kosovo conflict and has been cautious in subsequent overtures to NATO.
NATO Secretary General George Robertson will begin a three-day visit to Moscow next Monday when he is due to reopen a NATO information office in the Russian capital, closed since the start of the Kosovo conflict.