Russia is inviting EU and CIS countries to conduct a joint assessment of potential missile threats and is hoping to resume missile defense dialogue with NATO, the foreign minister said Wednesday, according to RIA Novosti.

"We agree that we need a thorough and joint assessment of technological, strategic and political issues related to European missile defense, said Sergei Lavrov, adding that Russia is ready to participate in these efforts.

The issue of the European missile shield has led to heated debates following the U.S. proposal earlier this year to deploy elements of its missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic, citing possible threats from Iran or North Korea as a reason for the program.

Speaking at the Yerevan State University in the capital of Armenia, the minister said that Russia had never opposed joint efforts in preventing potential threats, but these efforts must be authentically collective and the threats must be real.

"Any unilateral moves in the sphere of missile defense should be seen as attempts to split Europe," Lavrov said.

"This is the reason why we regard the unilateral decision to place elements of the U.S. missile defense in Central and Eastern Europe as a potential risk to Russia and the whole of Europe," he said.

Lavrov reiterated that the attempts of a single nation to ensure its own security at the expense of others is an illusion and nothing could substitute international cooperation in such a sensitive sphere.

"That is why we are proposing to start a joint assessment of potential nuclear and missile threats to Europe, Russia and our neighbors in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)," the Russian minister said.

At the same time, Lavrov expressed hope that a spoken agreement between U.S. and Russian Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin last week to discuss in detail U.S. plans "would allow the participants to resume collective dialogue and cooperation between Russia and the NATO on missile defense."

U.S. plans to deploy elements of the missile shield in Central Europe are expected to cost $1.6 billion over the next five years. The program will later be expanded to include sea-based missiles and space-based missile tracking systems.

Russia sees the prospective deployment as a threat to its own national security, and fears the base may trigger a new arms race.

On March 28, the Czech government confirmed that it will begin official talks with the U.S. on the deployment of the system on its territory. The negotiations, which will start as soon as possible, will last through to the end of 2007.